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Published October 14, 2013, 10:02 AM

Will shutdown wreck months of research?

If there is a story about the impact of the furlough of U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists in the partial federal government shutdown, it can’t be told — at least now.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — If there is a story about the impact of the furlough of U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists in the partial federal government shutdown, it can’t be told — at least now.

There is simply no one official on the job able to tell the story. Current furloughed employees don’t dare speak about it.

Bill Kemp is director of the Red River Valley Agricultural Research Center in Fargo, which includes the Biosciences Laboratory and the Northern Crop Science Laboratory, as well as the Potato Research site in East Grand Forks, Minn. USDA is part of the executive branch of government.

Kemp was dutifully away from the office and at home on Oct. 7. Kemp declined to answer questions about the shutdown and its effects on research. “I can only say I can’t wait to get back to work,” Kemp says, as the shutdown entered a second week. “That’s about it. I’m sorry.”

Kemp referred questions to Sandy Miller Hays, the chief spokesperson for the agency in the Beltsville, Md., headquarters. Like Kemp, Miller Hays did not answer messages left at her office number. Reached at home, she could only say she regrets she could say nothing. She says normally she would refer Agweek to the USDA Office of Communications, but they too are furloughed.

$18 million in annual research

According to file information, 150 people are employed at the local ARS labs based in Fargo, operating on an annual budget of about $18 million. They accomplish basic research on cereal crops (wheat and barley), sugar beets, potatoes and sunflower crops, as well as livestock animal metabolism and insect biochemistry and genetics. There are similar ARS laboratories in Grand Forks, N.D., Brookings, S.D., and elsewhere in the region.

Sources at the lab confirmed that there are four employees in the Fargo location, operating as a skeleton crew to tend to living things — critical aspects — such as cultures and plants that need watering. One person is reportedly on duty at an ARS Potato Research Work site in East Grand Forks.

Current employees, reached at home, say they don’t dare say anything about the situation for fear of retribution from the agency. Former employees say these kinds of political shutdowns are vexing and have bigger impacts than politicians seem to know.

G.D. Paulson, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry and worked in the Fargo lab from 1967 to 1996, says scientific activity should not be turned on and off. An internationally renowned expert on tracing the fate of agricultural medications in livestock animals, Paulson remembers a government shutdown some 17 years ago in which the lab was closed for days — not weeks, as is the potential this time.

“What I did was that I just went in, and I wasn’t the only one,” Paulson recalls. “I had things to do, meetings to prepare for, papers to publish — manuscripts to work on.” Paulson says that, contrary to opinions of critics, the scientists he worked with took their careers seriously. Some worked seven days a week and few would willingly let political failures impair their projects, and careers. Technicians who worked with the scientists often stayed at home, but senior scientists needed to take care of their experiments, and came to work.

“These things are underway,” Paulson says. “You just don’t walk off.”

‘People came to work’

Another retired doctorate-level crop scientist, who asked not to be named because of ongoing connections with the agency and fear of being viewed as disloyal, says one of the reasons he was able to continue working in the earlier shutdown was the offices then were simply locked with keys. “There weren’t other security devices on it at all,” the scientist says. “People came to work, regardless.”

Senior scientists — officially barred from time-sensitive tasks such as harvest — then resorted to “creative workarounds,” the scientist says, declining to be more specific, for fear that revealing the methods might imply to current scientists that the end justifies the means. But he says the stakes were high and he went forward at the time, despite some legal and liability issues.

“There were multi-year trials, that if they weren’t harvested on time, they’d create a data gap and would waste a year’s worth of effort,” the scientist says. “We had to be creative in trying to do our best to accomplish the research we could.”

Further, scientists in the laboratory are sometimes involved in contracts with private companies to collect third-party, unbiased data about hybrids and varieties. That data is quickly transferred to the extension service, and ultimately to the farmers, who rely on it. He acknowledges he doesn’t know what happens when the ARS doesn’t perform on its commitments.

“I’m sure they’re not happy about it,” he says of the company contracts.

Cancelled collaboration

Still another retiree in Fargo who keeps in close touch with current employees knows some who do international cooperating plant breeding travel and now have cancelled trips, costing both governments time and money, regardless of a shutdown. “Planning costs and the loss of contacts with colleagues in other countries, working on similar projects” is a problem, the former employee says.

The former employee says that while there are skeleton crews available, there are tissue culture tasks, for example, that would be too technical for anyone but the regular employee to accomplish. Other problems come with pollen experiments for crop trials in wheat, barley, sunflower and other crops — that may have a time window of viability. Again, a year’s work might be lost for a few weeks of a shutdown.

“Those are technical manipulations that only these persons are trained to do, and so the people who come to water the greenhouse are not equipped to do it,” the former employee says. “They have too much to do anyway, too much to just water the plants and can’t be doing the intricate details of the research,” the person says.

Outdoor harvest is the biggest question. One retiree says they were told about an initial administrative memo, asking for names of people who would be harvesting outdoor plots. “The next day, there was a memo that said, forget that — you cannot go out and harvest,” the retiree says. “Depending on the weather, some material will be lost if they don’t get permission to go back to work soon enough.”