By Campbell Robertson Jan. 24, 2019
CLEVELAND — When things overheat, corrode and stop working, that is when they call in Gustavo Costa.
It’s a rare expertise, critical to everything from space travel to fracking, and it keeps him in steady demand as a contractor at NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center. It has also put Dr. Costa, a United States citizen since August, within reach of his ultimate dream: working directly for NASA, a government agency as well-known as Coca-Cola back in his little Brazilian hometown.
These days, though, Dr. Costa does not make the five-mile trip from his house to the center. He is at home, already forced to consider jobs elsewhere because NASA has all but shut down for reasons that don’t seem to make much sense. Politics — even overheated, corroded, dysfunctional politics — are outside of Dr. Costa’s expertise. “What are they going to do next?” he asked on a cold morning in his quiet living room. “Do they realize what damage they’re causing?”
The Civil Service relies to a large degree on good will. No matter how vital high-skilled federal workers are to the functioning of government, there are usually companies willing to offer them much higher salaries — double or even triple in some cases — on top of the free lunches and stock options. As student debt soars and private sector opportunities multiply, the sheer allure of public service — “the mission,” as NASA researchers often put it — is what keeps a lot of talent in the government.
The longest shutdown in the country’s history is eroding that good will, already wearing thin after years of pay freezes, unpredictable budgets, and disdain from even the White House for government workers as swamp creatures or worse. Long after the government reopens, this is the damage that could last. If public service loses its allure, it will make it harder to recruit and hold onto the experienced and talented, those who can design spacecraft but also the people who battle epidemics, predict hurricanes and keep the food supply safe.
Steve Reaves, a Federal Emergency Management Agency employee who leads the union for FEMA workers, said he knew firsthand of six experienced people who had left the agency since the shutdown began. Two went to BP, the oil giant. “They’re relying on the pure good intentions of the higher skilled work force,” said Matt Linton, a computer security specialist in California who worked for NASA’s Ames Research Center for 14 years. “And that’s what they drain down the most quickly in these stupid shutdowns.” This is a concern across federal agencies and departments — and even, strikingly, at NASA, the gold standard of government agencies, which seemed in the past to have no trouble attracting anyone with the right stuff. The essential pitch is spelled out in large metal letters at the entrance to the Glenn Research Center, a half-moon-shaped cluster of buildings just northwest of the Cleveland airport. “Research and technology,” it reads, “for the benefit of all.”
In normal times, around 3,000 people are at work at Glenn, roughly half of them contractors and the other half civil servants, designing subsonic aeronautics or recreating the atmosphere of Venus. For the past few weeks it has been nearly empty. The workers at Glenn are mostly waiting, drawing down savings, wondering about the state of their untended lab work, reading about Chinese spacecraft landing on the moon and pondering the appeal of the public good when a good chunk of the public seems to have little use for it. “All these people seem to be celebrating our misfortune,” said Michael Kulis, a NASA chemist, who had seen comments on social media portraying federal workers as layabouts enjoying their vacations. Or, as one administration official said in an op-ed shared on Twitter by the president, the workers offered “nothing of external value” and were doing “errands for the sake of errands.”
A Navy veteran who is the son of a police officer, Dr. Kulis, is committed to staying at NASA, but finds all the scorn for public servants disheartening. “We didn’t get PhDs just to sit around,” he said. As a place to work, NASA still measures up against the corporate world, where venture capital comes and goes, big contracts are lost, funders get impatient. Even SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private space travel company, recently announced it was laying off around 10 percent of its work force. There are pensions and benefits in government work, and there is job stability. Or at least there used to be.
Recruiters and others at NASA say that even before the shutdown, the agency has not been the draw on top talent it once was. A graduate student interested in aerospace engineering is as likely to be wearing a SpaceX logo as the old blue-and-red NASA meatball.
Interns come to Glenn, learn what they can and leave for Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney or Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight company. The shutdown is not making recruiting any easier. The already slim stipends for postdoctoral fellows, invited to spend their early careers at NASA, have run dry, leaving them at the mercy of online fund-raising. Jeffrey Severino, a college student from the Bronx who planned to spend his winter break developing algorithms on a paid internship at Glenn, spent it instead delivering takeout. “I still want to work for them,” he said of NASA, though he is now asking what he would do if a shutdown were to happen again.
Now, even scientists and engineers several years into their careers at NASA are talking of leaving before things get worse. “People have forgotten what public institutions do and the roles that they play,” said one young NASA research scientist, who dreamed of working at NASA as a child in a family of immigrants, and discovered a new planet before he got out of high school.
NASA employees marching in Mountain View. The allure of public service has so far kept a lot of talent working for the government. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
NASA employees marching in Mountain View. The allure of public service has so far kept a lot of talent working for the government.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times
The scientist, who did not want to give his name out of fear of political reprisal, spent much of the past year preparing for an ambitious climate-related project to start in early January, based on his own technology and involving aircraft, boats and an international team of scientists. The shutdown cancelled it. He is now working as a Lyft driver to pay the bills, an arrangement that can keep him afloat for only a few more days. “I don’t want to give up on my country, but if you’re good at science and that’s what you do that’s what’s going to happen,” he said by phone on the way to a job interview. “There are opportunities in Canada that have a lot of great scientific potential.”
Governments are among the few places with the money and the latitude for research into fundamental questions without immediate or obvious application. This is the kind of research rarely found on Wall Street or even Silicon Valley, where science is typically tied to the bottom line. “We can’t land humans on Mars, reverse climate change or cure cancer without it,” said Lee Stone, a NASA research scientist and a vice president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, a union that represents thousands in the government and private sector.
When asked in an email about the shutdown’s effect on NASA, an agency spokeswoman, Katherine Brown, had an automatic reply that she was in furlough status and unable to respond. Mr. Linton, the California computer security specialist, had considered himself “a lifer” at NASA. “I felt like my job meant something,” he said. But in the fall of 2013, Congress could not agree about a budget amid a Republican crusade to defund the Affordable Care Act. So, to his astonishment, the government shut down for two weeks.
He was the only one in his section deemed essential, which meant coming to the center for four hours a day. The rest of the time he was free to think: about the needs of his young family and about the message sent by a government that deems thousands of its employees not valuable enough to do their jobs.
A Silicon Valley firm emailed him, asking him to visit in his spare time. He went, learned he could be making double his salary and shortly after the shutdown ended, left government for good. “Before 2013,” Mr. Linton said, “you at least felt like the whole country was behind you when you said, ‘I work for NASA.’ Now it’s absolutely evident that only 40 or 50 percent of the country is behind you and the other 40 or 50 percent think you’re some sort of fiscal drain.” The current shutdown, he said, was proof that he was right to leave when he did.
His old colleagues at NASA now see that, too. He has been getting emails from them over the past few weeks, he said. They are asking for references.