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Eyes Wide Shutdown

I hated that Kubrick movie but I love the title. It’s pretty apt for what this government paroxysm is doing to science all over the world. Take stalled scientific expeditions to Antarctica, where expensive instruments tuned to the pulses of melting ice caps stand in danger of going unmonitored this year. This doesn’t represent just the waste of hundreds of hours of preparation and analysis. If the instruments aren’t repaired and tended to this year, they are likely to be lost in the snowy depths and rendered useless. Because the research is federally funded, it’s on ice, as it were.

In Point Reyes, California, researchers from world-renowned Point Blue Conservation Science are caught at an ornithological impasse. Formerly known as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, this organization has been collecting data on songbirds since 1966. That’s 46 years of how many of which species are tweeting when and where, how well they are reproducing and how well they are surviving. In the world of natural science, long data sets are extremely rare. Until relatively recently, even if researchers had the ambition to collect the painstaking records that reveal the life histories of species, they weren’t able to easily collect it. Mobile technology, sophisticated statistical programming, and massive computing power have put Big Data at center stage in biodiversity studies.

Point Blue has been at the forefront of this revolution and this year is the second they have deployed sophisticated miniature geolocator tabs to track birds that pass through Point Reyes. “It’s pretty much changed our lives,” says Tom Gardali of Point Blue’s Palomarin Field Station. “Before the geolocators, we didn’t really know where the birds went. Now we do.” Monitoring Swainson’s thrushes, Gardali and his team have discovered that after wintering here they go to western Mexico near Puerta Vallarta (of course they do). “This is incredibly important to conservation,” he explains. “Now we know that this landscape is connected to that landscape.”

On the other hand, Golden Crowned sparrows that find Point Reyes to be their idea of a winter vacation go to Alaska to breed. “The amazing thing is that they spread out rather drastically,” Gardali says, the wonder of it all evident in his voice. “They break up and go to different spots along a 1300 km stretch of Alaskan coast. That ties our little West Marin place here with a vast geography.” Most of the shore line of North America is connected through these birds, conjoined at the special locus of Point Reyes.

The birds are following an ancient schedule that operates regardless of the bullies holding fast to their pulpit. Because Point Reyes is a National Seashore, Gardali and his team are forbidden from counting up the Crowned sparrows that are currently migrating here. If they fly through without being noted, the expense in both time and dollars of the fancy geolocators will be wasted. The loss of this year’s data degrades the effort and achievement of the 46 years of data that come before it. The utility of long term monitoring is that it shows change happening at the scale at which it occurs – at a huge scale over many years and many miles. Take an arbitrary bite out of that and you thwack the big picture.

As if the insult to the vital increase of basic knowledge weren’t enough, consider the repercussions of the shut down on volunteers. Not only are the government researchers prevented from doing their work, so are scores of volunteers who help them do it. The Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary has for 20 years run a Beach Watch monitoring program. Since 1993 more than 100 highly trained citizen scientists have helped notify the Office of Spill Prevention and Response about signs that an oil pollution event is underway. Beach Watch volunteers undergo a rigorous 80-hour training before being assigned one of 41 beach segments in the Bay Area to inventory every two to four weeks, taking meticulous note of both live and dead birds and mammals, and documenting oil tarballs. Beach Watch volunteers are amazingly dedicated and consistent. This January, assuming we have a functioning government, 15 Beach Watch veterans who have been on the job for 20 years each will be honored by the Sanctuary.

Although they don’t get paid, Beach Watch volunteers are covered by worker’s compensation insurance provided by the federal government – and of course, that is suspended at the moment. Volunteers have been enjoined to not go out to monitor transects. What this means is that 20 years of consistent data on the state and health of our beaches – which reflect the status of seabirds and marine mammals – will have a big lacuna in it. This could have a negative impact on future litigation and settlements regarding oil spills and the damage they do to our wildlife, to the health of our ecosystems, to our commercial and recreational experiences on the shore.

The shut-down of Beach Watch also comes at the time of year known informally as “oil spill season.” Annual current changes bring tarballs from naturally occurring oil seeps along the shores of central and southern California up North. Winter storms jar the sunken ships that liberally populate our sea floor – many of these went down with fuel aboard. And of course, there’s the stormy challenge to the constant shipping traffic through San Francisco Bay. It’s not if there will be another oil event here, it’s when. But without Beach Watch volunteers monitoring the shores for signs of stressed wildlife and tarballs, knowledge of these events will be delayed, and so will the subsequent response.

Timing is everything in nature, and the monitoring of sea life is particularly important now, at the end of the breeding season. A high level of bird mortality this time of year reflects the huge effort it takes older birds to fledge the next generation. Young birds that don’t make it through the ultimate hazing of survival, the challenges faced by their species for millennia, also die in higher numbers this time of year. The least we owe these sojourners is to witness and note the termination of their existence, intimately tied with our own. And without full information documented in standardized surveys, we can’t know whether the dead birds on the beach are part of the average fall-out in the struggle for existence, or if they indicate a larger pollution or other human-caused event.

Citizen scientists in general don’t have PhDs. What they do have is the status, the responsibilities, and the rights that define members of our body politic. The government shut-down perversely prevents people from fulfilling their roles as citizens? It voids the heroic commitment of regular people who devote thousands upon thousands of hours each year to helping safeguard our natural capital. It erases critical links in irreplaceable data sets going back into time. Stanley Kubrick was trying to get at a lie of the mind Homo sapiens are all too good at telling. Self-interest occludes what is right, even what is desperately, vitally right. We wring our hands; the birds fly overhead. Or die on the beach.

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