News, Science & Research

Government shutdown slows University science research

Closures delay grant reviews, cancel conferences, jeopardize long-term projects

By
Science and Research Editor
Thursday, January 24, 2019

Since Dec. 22, the University and other research institutions have scrambled to adapt to the unprecedented political stalemate over the federal government shutdown, which has dried up funds for federally supported research projects and now threatens long-term scientific advancement across the nation.

When the government shut down before the holidays, major agencies like the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration all closed without approved appropriations for 2019. Research institutions rely on these agencies not only for funding but also for technological, data-based and research support.

“The federal shutdown is causing uncertainty and complications about research funding at Brown … In some cases the shutdown is slowing or halting research itself,” Vice President for Research Jill Pipher wrote in a statement to The Herald.

Despite an inability to get funds from federal agencies, “the University is making scheduled payments on existing active NSF and NASA grants,” Pipher wrote, adding that these grants provide the salaries for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. “Brown, like other universities, is experiencing the strain of having to advance these funds without reimbursement.”

“We’ve been in a state of pretty perpetual anxiety since the shutdown started,” said postdoctoral researcher Christopher Horvat, who works as a polar oceanographer at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, where he studies sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans in relation to climate change. Horvat is not only a post-doc at the University but also a government contractor — he holds a second postdoctoral fellowship with the NOAA Climate and Global Change Program. Though Horvat’s paycheck has not yet been cut, his financial situation could change if the shutdown continues for more than a few more weeks, he said.

Many research  endeavours, especially in relation to the work of government contractors, have been put on hold. Conference travel cannot be completed during the shutdown since it is a “large capital investment that takes time to plan” and cannot be scheduled when future sources of funding are uncertain, Hovart said. Meeting with other experts is crucial for scientists who use these trips to forge collaborations with their peers and discuss new findings from institutions scattered across the globe.

“Some researchers are having to pay for travel on their own, hoping for later reimbursement, and some have had to cancel trips because they couldn’t afford to pay the expenses on their own. In addition, federal program officers are unable to attend scientific meetings and conferences that inform their work,” Pipher wrote.

In order to serve on grant review panels for the NSF, many University researchers must travel to the locations where the panels are held. All scheduled panels have been “canceled and will likely be rescheduled to a later date,” according to the NSF. As the schedule continues to be delayed, the pace of scientific research at the University and across the nation could slow. “This will cause problems for many months after the shutdown ends,” Pipher wrote. If panels cannot convene, then grants previously submitted to the NSF cannot be reviewed and researchers who otherwise would have been funded will see a delay in their project timelines. In addition, no new grants will be reviewed or approved during the shutdown.

Professor Emeritus of Geological Sciences Peter Schultz, who directs the Northeast Planetary Data Center and previously worked at NASA, expressed concerns about back pay for contractors working at NASA and other agencies. Though President Trump has signed an act guaranteeing back pay for most federal employees affected by the shutdown, this legislation does not usually apply to government contractors. As the shutdown continues, this could equate to the loss of a significant percentage of their yearly salary, Schultz said. The “human toll” is detrimental, and “NASA may lose some really good people” as a result, he added.

Beyond the immediate impact, the University and other research institutions may feel a number of long-term ripple effects.

Time-sensitive work can be compromised by a lack of resources during a shutdown, Horvat said, especially as this shutdown continues to stretch into the longest in American history. For example,  reports for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which involves groups working for years to develop accurate predictive climate models, could theoretically be permanently handicapped by the pause in data collection. “Those labs in America may have their computers shut down. If they are not able to do that simulation, they won’t be included in the next climate report,” Horvat said. Without funding, valuable data can be lost and years of work compromised.

At NASA, “missions are still going to operate,” Schultz said, but data analysis from ongoing missions or preparations for upcoming projects may be postponed. Committees populated by contractors or civil servants who are not able to work during the shutdown will be behind schedule when they return to work, he added.

Beyond the impact on individual projects, the lack of job security made apparent by the shutdown may impact young researchers. “From my perspective, it has much (broader) effects than just us missing a paycheck — which is bad enough — it enhances a pull away from public-benefit science,” Horvat said. Especially for early career scientists, work in the private sector may become more appealing as the shutdown and its politics fuel anxiety, he added. “Those of us who do climate science are interested in doing science for public good,” he said, adding that “there’s a reason why we are in these fields. We are trying to understand how to better forecast extreme events and the effects of the changing climate.” However, he added, if federal support is not available for this research, it cannot be done.  “It’s not explicit that anyone is trying to discourage us from doing climate science, but it certainly has that effect.”

“Brown is monitoring the situation closely and will continue to report any potential implications to the University community,” Pipher wrote in her statement. It has yet to be determined when the shutdown will end, but for these scientists, like many federal employees, the effects are already being felt.