Winter, when the days are dark and short, is the time of year when the ground squirrels lying dormant in my lab provide us with our most valuable lessons. The animals spend the chilly months oblivious to the world around them, bedded down in woodchip–filled plastic crates that are stored inside a temperature-controlled cold room. The group I lead at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studies hibernation. This remarkable ability evolved to give the squirrels and other animals a leg up in life, a chance to survive difficult times when resources are scarce.
Knowing the secrets of how some mammals alter their metabolism to ratchet down heart rate and breathing to go months without food or water may help us discover new strategies for helping people who suffer heart attacks, stroke or a massive loss of blood. The inventions of nature, including hibernation, offer insights, ideas and strategies that, if we can figure them out, can give us humans a leg up in life, too, improving our health, quality of life, and ability to use the resources at our disposal wisely.
This is also the time of year when my laboratory receives an annual infusion of funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support the work we do. The funding we receive, hard won three years ago in an intensely competitive process, pays not only for the research, but for the people who do much of the heavy lifting of science, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. These are the scientists of tomorrow, and their training and livelihoods, like those of many thousands of the federal employees now going without a paycheck, are in the balance as politicians in Washington duel over contentious policy.
The work we are conducting today was devised and mapped out many months ago. Unplanned delays in our studies coupled with the uncertainty of when they might resume puts our research goals at risk. Those outcomes are closely linked to carefully planned timelines. In our case, because we are hitched to the pace of the natural world, we necessarily time our research to the biological rhythms of the hibernating animals we study. This ensures that we house and care for our animals in as close to a natural state as possible, and that the data we collect is as accurate as it can be. Our window to stay on track with our animals’ biological timelines is finite and closing.
The impasse in the federal government means my grant award has not arrived. As a result, my lab’s budget is now in the red. I am fortunate that my university has carry-over funds to keep our work going. Most important, a talented young scientist in my lab whose job depends on our NSF grant will not lose his livelihood while we wait for the government to reopen.
Our laboratory, of course, is hardly unique in its dependence on federal funds. And while we have bridge funding from my institution to weather the fiscal storm, those resources are not limitless. The shutdown is now on a pace to be a record and with no end in sight. Our good fortune may only be a temporary respite.
The resources provided by the federal government through NSF and an array of federal agencies—NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, among others—is the lifeblood of the nation’s scientific enterprise. Thousands of researchers like me are now doing the same calculus: How long can we keep things going before our work comes to a stop? Unlike our squirrels, we can’t hit the pause button until resources once again become available.