Research grants on hold as US government shutdown persists

Agencies including the National Science Foundation are without funding

January 7, 2019
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The partial shutdown of the US government just before Christmas was expected to have a limited effect on higher education. As it moves through its third week with little sign of ending, however, problems may start accumulating.

The shutdown, stemming from President Trump’s insistence on billions of dollars for a wall along the Mexican border, excluded two top funders of higher education – the US Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health.

But several of the federal agencies that are caught in the shutdown – because their budgets for the current fiscal year have not yet been funded by Congress – include the National Science Foundation and several smaller agencies that finance academic research.

Those shuttered agencies represent billions of dollars in research grants, and their suspensions are already halting scientific projects and upending scientific conferences.

And while the Department of Education is still providing grant money and low-interest loans for college students, the Internal Revenue Service has largely shut down. That is starting to hinder students who need income-related data from the IRS to obtain or continue their financial aid.

There are also the government employees themselves. Some 800,000 government personnel are either off the job during the shutdown, or forced to work without pay. That is affecting untold numbers of students within their families.

Funding stoppages – often involving all federal agencies – have been a fairly common negotiating tactic in major showdowns between the White House and Congress. There have been at least 20 since 1977, though usually only for a few days and rarely more than a couple weeks.

In the end, the major result of such shutdowns has usually been short-term anxieties and governmental budget losses, as Congress has typically approved back pay for all federal workers furloughed during shutdowns. In some instances, effects on research have been more costly, with a few projects cancelled.

This shutdown, however, is now approaching the record of 21 days, and President Trump has begun threatening to let it continue for “months or even years” to fulfil a campaign commitment to more thoroughly block immigrants from Mexico. His administration also has been telling government employees to consider other means of income.

That is making the ultimate impact more threatening for college students and faculty who rely on government funding. The NSF, the largest affected science agency, with a $7 billion (£5.5 billion) annual budget, may cancel dozens of meetings scheduled for this month to award grant money.

Beyond the NSF, agencies without funding that award grant money to university scientists include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University who is awaiting grant decisions by the NSF and NASA, wrote on Twitter that he will not accept any new graduate students this year if the agencies cannot make awards within about two months.

“I’m sure this is happening all over campuses across the US,” Professor Dessler wrote. “I don’t know what the longer-term impact of this will be. But it can’t be good.”

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