Furloughs hit research plots

Because of the government shutdown, U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded University employees have been sent home, leaving some federal research projects at a complete standstill and others controlled solely by graduate students.

Carl Bernacchi, a plant biology professor who’s working on a USDA-funded project called Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment, or soyFACE, said the research that he deals with directly went to a complete halt.

“I think its absurd that the situation has evolved to what it is,” Bernacchi said. “One of the more challenging aspects of this is the fact that it’s actually against the law for me to work.”

He said the pay aspect was a challenge in itself as well, but once the furlough ended, he would return to a huge amount of work.

“We’re right in the middle of our harvest,” said Randy Nelson, a plant genetics professor and furloughed USDA researcher who also conducts research on a soybean plot . “Our field research is all based on the germplasm collection that need to be harvested, and we don’t have people to harvest them right now.”

All the soybean plot’s harvesters are employed by the USDA and cannot work during the furlough.

“Many of the lines are very fragile in the field, and as soon as they ripen, many of the pods open and shatter,” Nelson said. “We have to harvest a couple times a week, or we’re going to lose that seed.”

He said the later they got into fall, the more difficult harvest would become.

Darin Eastburn, crop science associate professor, is not directly funded by the USDA but is directly affected by the furloughs. Now he’s looking for other options to harvest the soybeans in case the shutdown continues.

“I’m talking with my colleagues in the department to see if they can help me hit those plots in the event the shutdown goes for much longer,” Eastburn said. “I’m hoping that the shutdown will end soon, so we can harvest our plot before we lose very important data.”

Eastburn said it’s important to note that not only University faculty work is being affected — student work is too. He said students were impacted when graduate students had to meet with their advisers and the joint University federally funded employees couldn’t be there.

“Some USDA people chose to attend not as federal employees, so they said ‘I’m just here hanging out with friends,’ and other people stayed home,” Eastburn said. “It has fairly broad implications for what happens for the non-federal, the non-USDA people at the University.”

Claire can be reached at [email protected]