I think that Julius Caesar’s soothsayer may have been on to something. But in my case, the last 2 weeks have seemed more like a scene out of the Twilight Zone than a Shakespearean play. In retrospect, there were several months of foreshadowing, but I was still caught completely off-guard by the news.
As I believe I have mentioned previously, I worked for about 13 years as a university professor in a physics department at a moderate-sized private university. I was happy, life was good, but something was missing. After some experimentation and soul searching (to be described in more detail in some future post), I decided to leave my tenured position in pursuit of a more “meaningful”, or at least challenging, career. I ended up in California, as a federal government employee. In spite of the “little” fiasco called the 2013 government shutdown, life here has been good and I’ve never regretted my decision to leave my otherwise secure position. The project that I’ve been working on for the past 5 years — the one that brought me to the West Coast — has been all that I hoped it would be, with “challenging” ranking right up there at the top. With challenges, there have been lots of rewards, as well, not the least of which being the privilege of working with a group of truly dedicated, smart scientists and engineers.
But then, March 3 happened (OK, not quite the Ides of March, but “close enough for government work” — ha!). Actually, I first got word of bad news on Feb 27, but as they say “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings”. Or in this case, until the big boss calls. On Monday Mar 3, promptly at 7AM local time, I got a call from the Director at the Washington, D.C. Headquarters of the agency for which I work, informing me that the 2015 proposed President’s Budget called for the cancellation of “my” mission. The mission that wooed me away from the safe comfort of a tenured professorship. The mission to which I have given 5 dedicated years of my life, but to which many of my colleagues have given vast portions of their careers (this mission has been a long time “in the making”).
The news seemingly came out of nowhere, and the timing couldn’t be more odd. After a very rocky start over nearly two decades ago, and going through a similar near-death experience in the mid-2000’s after years of unsatisfactory progress and mismanagement by the primary contractor, the program had risen from the ashes and become an exemplary model of a mission that was hitting all of its milestones on-schedule and within allocated budget. The mission had already proven itself by collecting science data, and was just getting ready to do a fierce ramp-up of operations to dramatically increase the science data rate, per plan. Everyone seemed happy with our progress. My team was proud of the recent successes that we’ve had. If this mission were the kind that involved a rocket launch, we’d all be shouting “yes, go for launch!!” But somehow, somewhere, someone at OMB (the White House Office for Management and Budget) got the idea that our program is somehow “lower priority” and worthy of effective cancellation.
Ever the optimists, my colleagues and I comfort ourselves with the knowledge that the proposed OMB budget is but the first step in a long budget process that gets finalized only after Congress passes a budget and the President signs it, and that budget may (or may not) bear any resemblance to this proposed OMB budget that is trying to shut us down. Also, the international partners involved in this project are … to say the least … pissed. They feel as if they’ve been dropped like a lead balloon, as surprised as the rest of us at this out-of-the-blue news. Honestly, none of us have any idea of how all this is going to play out, in the end. All we can do is hope, provide information when it is requested of us, and try to maintain a positive attitude and keep the mission moving along for as many days as we have been given to close things out.
Looking back, there were signs of doom. If only I could have recognized the signs at the time. For example, there were a couple of activities that required Headquarters’ concurrence in order to allow us to proceed, and the HQ folks seemed to just drag their feet in getting concurrence for what would normally require little turn-around time. I chalked it all up to the momentum that had been lost due to the government shutdown. And then just last month, when I heard good news about how my agency did, over all, in the 2014 budget, I breathed a sigh of relief, feeling that things had ended up much better than I could have dared hoped for.
At the moment, we are still very stunned, and haven’t really considered what becomes of us. As a civil servant, I am less likely in the near term to outright lose my job than if I were a contractor. But what does tomorrow look like for me, if this program is really not to survive? Will there be a RIF (Reduction In Force — a fancy word for layoffs of government employees) eventually, due to the lack of similar missions being managed at my institution right now? Will I be relegated to spend the rest of my work days at some dusty desk in the corner of a mildew-infested circa 1930-something basement, feeling worthless and looking back at my days in academia with a pathetic mixture of envy and regret?
The stress of the past few weeks has really gotten to me. I’ve learned that my body is unbelievably sensitive to these external forces, in a way that I had never really noticed before. I’ve had a lot of eye trouble (light sensitivity, throbbing in the back of my eyes, and a stabbing pain in my left eye that felt more like I had grit or something in my eye), feelings of vertigo. And oh, how could I forget, a full blown case of urinary tract infection last week that went from “strange feeling and can’t pee very well” to “I’m definitely peeing blood” in the course of a mere 4 hours. Nothing that a 5-day course of Cipro couldn’t fix.
Oh well, things could always be worse, right? At least I can now pee again! (Seriously, unless you’ve “been there”, you couldn’t possibly imagine how all other problems pale by comparison!) Anyway, here’s hoping for a cheerier tomorrow.