December 8, 2023

Federal shutdown includes agencies that are key supporters of university research

Author: Scott Jaschik
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Numerous federal agencies that are important to higher education were shut down at midnight Friday when a standoff over President Trump’s proposed border wall was not resolved. Trump has vowed not so sign a measure to keep the government fully functioning unless more than $5 billion is included for the wall. Democrats have refused to provide the votes to do so.

The shutdown applies to agencies that are not covered by appropriations bills already signed into law. The bill for the Education Department has been signed into law, and so that agency and the student aid funds it provides should not be affected. That same bill also includes the National Institutes of Health, a major provider of research grants.

But many other funding agencies that make numerous grants to higher education — including the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Endowment for the Humanities — are funded by appropriations bills that have not been signed into law. So these agencies are effectively closed.

The NSF budget — more than $7.5 billion — supports thousands of research grants by faculty members nationwide in the physical sciences, computer science and the social sciences. The NSF also funds science education programs. An agency such as the NEH is a fraction of the size of the NSF but plays a key role in many humanities research and education programs.

Generally, the faculty members and institutions receiving grants may not face a severe impact if the shutdown is only for a day or so. Funds already distributed may continue to be used. But as long as the shutdown continues, new funds from these agencies will not go out. Most grants, in particular large grants, are not covered by a single payment from the agency. In contracts with each institution, a timeline is set and funds are distributed according to that plan. The longer the shutdown goes on, the more likely it is that research and education programs on campuses will not receive funds on the schedules they have planned.

Lobbyists for research institutions also warned about the impact of the shutdown on future grants. Agencies have extensive peer-review processes involving agency officials and outside teams of experts who gather to review applications. Agency officials field questions all the time about preparing grant applications. None of this will take place while these government agencies are shut down. The week of Christmas, of course, is not a period of peak activity on these matters, but the longer the shutdown goes on, the greater the delays in these activities, potentially delaying future grants.

Trump has warned that the shutdown could be “very long.” When Democrats take over control of the House of Representatives in January, they are likely to pass measures to fund the government, but not the proposed border wall. How their conflict with Trump will play out is uncertain. The Senate, controlled by Republicans now and in the new Congress, passed a bill with bipartisan support this week to fund the government without the wall, but that was before Trump indicated that he would not sign it.

Leaders of higher education groups that represent research universities issued statements late Friday criticizing the shutdown and calling for all agencies to be opened again.

Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, issued a statement that said in part that the shutdown “would have a real impact on public universities and their ability to conduct research in areas that are key to our economy, national security, and quality of life.”

He added that “we know from past shutdowns that agencies won’t answer their phones or check their emails, and typically their websites go dark too. That leaves agency-funded scientists, including many at public research universities, in a lurch if they need to communicate with agency officials regarding an ongoing project. Additionally, most other important activity at the agencies will cease during the shutdown period as well, meaning there won’t be any reviews of grant applications for new research and any other scheduled meetings or funding disbursements will not occur.”

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, issued a statement that said in part, “Senseless displays of brinkmanship have serious consequences, including for university researchers who seek cures, innovation, and [to] bolster national security on behalf of the American people. We urge Congressional leaders and the administration to act responsibly and immediately fund our government.”

Stephen Kidd, executive director of the National Humanities Alliance, noted one irony of the shutdown for researchers. Their grants might be delayed in coming, but their reporting obligations aren’t pushed back. Kidd said that he has been advised that grantees whose agreements include reporting requirements must file those reports on time, even if no one is at the agency to read them.

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