Friday Frontiers: “The shutdown chronicles”

Synchronicity and the butterfly effect are wreaking havoc with marine science.

Synchronicity – syn.chro.nic.i.ty – /ˌsiNGkrəˈnisədē/ Definition: ‘meaningful coincidences’ – the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear related but have no discernible causal connection.

Butterfly effect  Definition: ‘an African butterfly’s wing-beats can lead to hurricanes across the Atlantic’ – In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.

This post is about unintended consequences of a current eco-political synchronicity. The events: any of the seasonally occurring happenings in marine sciences, and the US government partial shutdown. There is no discernible causal connection. However, the seasonality and also the very nature of science create a particular sensitivity to disturbance and disruption – including the current US government shutdown.

The nearly-month long shutdown is having impacts on science. Image via NPR

A central component of the scientific method involves the establishment of precise data collection protocols before the start of projects, and adherence throughout. Best practices, as well as ethical and financial considerations often commend minimizing the number of samples we collect, animals we work with, or seasons across which we sample. Some uncertainties and disruptions can be anticipated and planned for, but the vagaries of politics rarely are. Unfortunately this means that many long-term, multi-year and costly projects can be crippled or even invalidated through seemingly unrelated events such as the current shutdown.

Even short durations of a disruption can have enormous consequences. To me, this is reminiscent of the butterfly effect: a butterfly beating its wings in Africa can lead to hurricanes in the Caribbean. This is not to minimize the well publicized and readily apparent gravity of a government shutdown, but to highlight the often overlooked staggering scale of seemingly disconnected consequences, including financial and socio-economic ones.

Here is an example of how the shutdown is impacting our science:

Northern fur seals on St. Paul Island (Photo credit: Amy Bishop)

A few weeks ago, we were ready to start a new pilot project using high-tech tags to track a small group of stranded, rehabilitated fur seals. However, we had to consult with the federal permit office (within NOAA) on some technicality of the proposed work, before proceeding. Since we could not consult (NOAA is effectively shut down), we could not proceed with the project, and the animals had to be released without trackers.

It may seem like a small change in plan, but this pilot effort would have been essential for the reasonable submission of a proposal to an upcoming federal funding opportunity – for the full scale project – with any chance of success. So we’ll ‘just’ have to wait for the next group of animals, and the next funding opportunity. However, fur seals typically strand in the fall, and this most applicable funding opportunity will not return for three years. That means our chance to maybe move the study of declining Northern fur seals in the Bering Sea forward through the application of the latest in technology, and to help inform the emerging discussion about potential competition between pinnipeds and human activities in the arctic, will likely be pushed back by at least 3 years.

What is the total effect?

An ASLC research team has set up a small shelter over a Weddell seal, on the 1m thick sea ice in McMurdo Sound, Ross Sea, Antarctica. The team uses a tracked vehicle and snowmobiles to transport gear and reach experimental sites near Weddell seal haul-outs. Photo by Markus Horning.

In a previous shutdown in 2013, many research projects funded through the National Science Foundation’s US Antarctic Program and staged through McMurdo Station lost an entire field season, and some lost everything. For some projects designed around multiple sequential years of precise and consistent sampling, losing one season meant invalidating the entire projects as well as all previous financial investments. These cumulative costs were staggering, yet never tallied as such.

Beyond these examples, it is arguably the combination of the unique nature of the scientific method and the pervasive presence of seasonality in all aspects of marine biology and ocean sciences that leads to the heightened vulnerability of marine research in particular, to disruptions. This seasonality can be biological (fur seals breed once a year), environmental (we sample once per year during the same season), or logistical (we can’t travel to McMurdo Sound or pinniped colonies but once per year).

Perturbations such as government shutdowns – even if short – can catastrophically undermine our ability to understand and effectively manage the marine ecosystems that underpin much of Alaska’s economy.

Stand by for more perspectives on the impacts of government shutdowns on science.

Written by: Dr. Markus Horning, ASLC Science Director

This article is “perspectives”; the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ASLC

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