Guest Post: What I did on my furlough “vacation.”

Today’s post is a little different. We’re featuring a guest contribution from microbiologist Laura Williams, who was impacted by the recent government shutdown. You can follow her at @MicroWavesSci. Enjoy!

On October 1, I was furloughed from my position as a postdoc at a federal agency because of the government shutdown. This agency will remain nameless because I am not supposed to talk about the furlough, the government shutdown or the ridiculous mess in Congress in any official capacity. So, nameless it will remain. After a little over two weeks of ridiculous Congressional theatrics, a deal was struck, and I returned to work along with 800,000 other federal employees.

My unexpected furlough “vacation” prompted me to think a lot about what it means to be a scientist.

Because of something called the Antideficiency Act of 1884 (I swear I’m not making this up), I was forbidden to do any work related to my job while on furlough. This might sound like one of those goofy legislative writs that nobody really follows, like Washington state’s law RCW 70.54.050 which criminalizes going out in public with a cold, but I was warned explicitly not to violate the Antideficiency Act in a group meeting, and Wikipedia, the arbiter of all knowledge, says that although nobody has been convicted or indicted for violating the act, “punitive administrative actions are routinely taken”. Yikes. Don’t let them make an example of you. Don’t do any work related to your job. Message received.

But, what is my job exactly? My job is defined as Research Microbiologist. This involves a lot of specific tasks directly related to federally funded projects. However, my job also draws on my broader expertise and knowledge as a scientist, which I am constantly expanding by reading and thinking about research that is not directly related to the objectives of my federally funded projects. So, on my furlough, I kept up with my literature searches, reading a few papers on topics of relevance to my projects. I also familiarized myself with a few new bioinformatics tools, which aren’t immediately relevant to my federally funded projects, but may become useful later. Is this in violation of the Antideficiency Act? Not really. Hopefully this slides by any overzealous lawyer types.

It’s clear that the Antideficiency Act constrains my actions as related to my current job as a scientist, but how does it encompass my career as a scientist? I’m at an early career stage, so pursuing multiple opportunities is a requirement for advancement. This is why I am still working with my advisor from my first postdoc to analyze data and write manuscripts. This is why I am doing some independent work on an entirely different system that I am developing as part of my research trajectory. I spent a good portion of my furlough days on these projects, which are totally unrelated to my current job description. Is this in violation of the Antidefiency Act? I don’t think so. The federal government isn’t paying me to work on these projects. Nobody is. That’s part of the point. I’m spending time and energy on these projects because I want to, but also because I need to so that I can advance my career as a scientist.

How about my responsibilities as a scientist? Are these part of the narrowly defined job description covered by the Antideficiency Act? During my two weeks of furlough, I reviewed a paper for a journal. This is expected of every PhD-wielding scientist as an obligation to the larger community. Beyond the simple fulfillment of an e-mailed review request from a journal editor, I’ve been following the open access and transparency discussions closely. I spent a bit of my furlough reading some fascinating recent examinations of the strengths and failings of peer review and thinking about the benefits and challenges of possible alternatives. To me, reflecting on the broader practices of the scientific enterprise is an important and necessary responsibility as a scientist, but this isn’t part of my federally funded job description. I think I’m safe from any dogged enforcers of the Antideficiency Act.

In the end, I spent my furlough days as I spend my regular working days, as a scientist. I read science, wrote science, and thought science. If I understand the Congressional deal correctly, I’ll get paid for those furlough days. So, in essence, it was a paid vacation from my specific job duties (with some possible lapses here and there, but don’t tell the Act enforcers), but I didn’t take a vacation from science. For one, as an early career scientist, I simply can’t afford to, and for another, I didn’t want to. Science is too much a part of who I am. I can’t be furloughed from myself.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: What I did on my furlough “vacation.”

  1. Your approach was a common one I think. My advisor took the same mentality. S/he’s on sabbatical at a government funded place and was furloughed. S/he worked on projects she is advising at the home institution and ones s/he is collaborating on. S/he even submitted a paper or two so there is some record of ‘work’ being done during the shutdown window. One of hir co-workers in a similar position took the opposite position – that continuing work for the home institution was a violation of the law. This story was relayed with a voice of incredulity. We couldn’t quite wrap our minds around actually stepping away from the enterprise of science over the shutdown.

    • That’s an interesting contrast! My furlough experience really made me think about the difference between “job” and “career”. There are so many aspects of being a scientist that don’t fit neatly into the set of tasks laid out in a job description. But those aspects are key parts of participating in the scientific community. My experience also made me wonder about the differences between how academia versus government/industry view a career in science. For example, how does industry view scientists’ responsibilities, such as peer review?

      • I think it is the difference between a ‘profession’ and a ‘job’….. perhaps the wider society does not understand this difference. But, having thought this, I then thought that ‘being a scientist at heart’ does not even fit in with what is regarded as a ‘profession’… You are right, we can’t be furloughed from ourselves (in my case, not even in retirement from my job).

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