The miracle of websites is that, unlike IRL locations, they never close. Need to order some bullshit on Amazon or file your taxes at three in the morning? No problem, the web is always open for business.
The exception to this rule seems to be the National Science Foundation’s website, which replaced its normal landing page with a bunch of plain text explaining that its website will be “unavailable until further notice” thanks to the government shutdown.
It’s unlikely that the shutdown forced the NSF to furlough the intern responsible for hand cranking the agency’s servers to keep the website online, which leads one to wonder why it didn’t just leave its website as is and just not respond to emails during the shutdown.
According to Alex Howard, the deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, this is the result of “20th century policies governing a 21st century government.”
During a government shutdown, all non-essential employees are put on furlough and legally unable to continue working until the shutdown ends. This means that national parks, NIH-run clinics and any other agency effectively becomes closed to the public for the duration of the shutdown.
Often times agency employees are also responsible for maintaining the agency’s website and social media practice (as opposed to hiring a contractor to maintain its web presence) which means these shutdown mandates also extend to its web presence.
Whether an agency totally takes its site offline (like www.data.gov), or opts to put a static page like the NSF or NOAA is ultimately decided by each agency according to its needs and structure. If an agency restricts access to the data on its site, it is required by the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 to notify the public if it stops updating its website during a shutdown.
Considering that the function of the NSF is basically just to field tons of paperwork for government science grants, it makes sense that it would want to stave off the mountain of applications that would surely accumulate during the shutdown. Still, as Howard pointed out to me, it seems a little odd to restrict all access to the information on a government website, rather than just post a note saying the agency won’t be responding to emails or something similar.
“It’s not like the data that was on the site at 11pm before the shutdown all of a sudden becomes invalid after the shutdown at midnight,” Howard told me on the phone. The laws simply haven’t adapted to the information age yet.
So although the current US Congress is the most anti-science legislature in recent history, fear not—the NSF isn’t gone for good. Congress just came to a deal to reopen the government, meaning the NSF’s website will likely be back soon.