Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Gallows Humor

The term gallows humor refers to joking around in the face of and in response to a worrisome, serious, or hopeless situation. In the past week I have overheard more than my fair share of such witticisms. I work for a national research laboratory funded by the United States Department of Energy. Due to the uncertainty in the federal budget for the current fiscal year that began on October 1, our laboratory funding situation in both the short and long term is extremely unsettled. Coupled with the current national recession, which has caused significantly reduced federal funding for science research over the past several years, we are faced with a number of possible scenarios, none of which are pleasant to consider. On the one hand, funding shortfalls for the laboratory mean that projects years in the design and planning, are put at risk of being significantly reduced in scope or cancelled outright. On the other hand, when projected funding levels unexpectedly are cut, the human element of the equation quickly overshadows everything else. Furloughs, pay cuts, and lay-offs become part of the planning scenarios. Right now senior lab management has compiled a list of positions marked for lay-off notices by the end of this year should a certain budget scenario be presented. Each position represents a person with a full slate of bills that won't stop even if the paychecks do. With the government now officially shutdown, seemingly in unresolvable chaos, our facility can only continue paying its workers for another few weeks before its cache runs dry.

With all of these dire clouds floating about our careers and livelihoods, our laboratory director called for an "all-hands" meeting late last week to tell us what he knows about the goings-on in Washington and what our options are moving forward. An auditorium packed to the rafters with workers, from the entry-level technician to the most senior of scientist, sat in a thick molasses of quiet, concern, and what-ifs. Every day since then, the gallows humor has been rampant around every coffee pot, in every break room, and at every table in the cafeteria. When folks are utterly powerless to affect or impact their situation, there just sometimes seems no other outlet than remarks fit only to be hung.