CongressWith the 16-day government shutdown officially over, some 450,000 furloughed federal employees headed back to work today.

While it’s unclear how long it will take EHS-related agencies like OSHA, MSHA, NIOSH, the CSB and the NTSHA to get back up to speed, some consequences of the shutdown include an estimated $23 billion hit to the U.S. economy and – some say – irreversible damage to the scientific standing of the country.

The beginning of the end?

One online poster said that damage started even before the shutdown.

“The sequester and shutdown have already snowballed, provoking thousands of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, scientists and clinicians, all of whom are paid in federal grants from NIH to some degree, to seek other careers or leave the country. One scientific society estimated (before the shutdown) that as many as 1 in 5 American scientists was considering a move abroad because of the sequester. Market forces know no 'patriotism' -- highly talented labor can emigrate as easily as immigrate.

“Many scientists fear this is the beginning of the end of American scientific leadership…”

Another poster, identified as an employee at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) said he was thinking of moving out of the country to continue his work, noting that the sequester has cut budgets at the National Institutes of Health

Beyond scientists

How many scientists share these sentiments? It’s hard to say. It’s also hard to predict what effect a sizeable loss of the American scientific community would have on health research and public health in general.

The brain drain could go beyond scientists.

The end of the political standoff – which occurred when Republicans agreed to finance government operations until January 15 and raise the debt ceiling until mid-February – offers only short-term solutions which may give rise to another, similar standoff in the weeks ahead.

Some federal employees who lost pay and endured employment uncertainty during this stalemate may be unwilling to go through such an ordeal again. They could hardly be blamed for polishing their resumes, searching job-related websites and seeking work outside of the federal government.