Last week the federal government failed to fund itself due to a dispute over funding the Affordable Healthcare Act. Federally funded agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control were shut down (with a essential services remaining operational). In additional national parks, monuments, museums, etc. were all shuttered. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains some of the ways the federal government shutdown impacts professional sociologists.
There are many careers sociologists hold once they earn their degrees. I hold a tenured teaching position at a community college where I get to teach sociology among other duties. Many sociologists do not teach or work in higher education at all. Many sociologists work for the federal government.
Sociologists work for the Center for Disease Control, National Institute of Health, the U.S. Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among other federally funded government agencies.
Whether we work for one of these organizations or not, many of us rely on the data produced by these organizations on a regular basis. One of the posts I was preparing for Sociology in Focus relied on U.S. Census data. I went to their website and saw this:
Fortunately, Bridget Welch pointed me to the Wayback Machine to get data that was up to date as of last Monday, September 30, 2013. I was able to finish that post. Unfortunately, I taught a class today in which I use a table from the U.S. Census and forgot to find it using the Wayback Machine link prior to class. My students had to settle for the grainy, paper copy.
So yes, this government shutdown is crimping my teaching style. It could be worse, at least I’m not furloughed, as many sociologists working for the federal government are in organizations such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:
I could also be a graduate student or a faculty member applying for research money through the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institute of Health (NIH) right now. If I were, my research could be delayed. If I am a student, this has implications for my timeline to graduate. If I am a faculty member, this could delay or derail a tenure vote. If my research is currently funded by a NSF or NIH grant, I might have to suspend my research, which migh be manageable for some research programs. My research, however, might be time sensitive, such as the research scientists
are were planning to conduct in Antarctica (these researchers are probably not sociologists).
While it might be easy to brush off NASA and North Pole expeditions as silly things the men of The Big Bang Theory do (see Wolowitz goes to space, North Pole), the suspension of government research matters. For example, it might be useful to know what flu activity currently looks like as flu season just began. NPR summarizes economist Justin Wolfers’ point that “we can’t tell how bad the government shutdown is for the economy because of the government shutdown.” In other words, we have no data right now, so we do not know how bad things really are.
The flipside of a lack of data? We can find out if ignorance really is bliss.
- Why do you think that academic research is seen as less valuable as other things the federal government funds. (For the record, if you think government sponsored research is stupid, then I should point out that the very internet you’re using was a government sponsored research project).
- Because the government is not currently reporting unemployment rate data, come up with an alternative way sociologists could measure whether unemployment rates are declining or increasing?
- How might researchers monitor flu activity, without the CDC data?
- Ask one of your teachers how the government shutdown impacts the work that they do. Report back to your class.