Shutdown impacts STEM

As the national government enters its fourth day of shutdown and prospects for political compromise remain uncertain, Yale researchers and science administrators fear the effects of a protracted gridlock in Washington.

Furloughs at federal organizations like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have severely limited faculty members’ ability to make contact with organizations critical for supporting their research, according to Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steve Girvin. Yale receives an average of $1.5 million in federal support each day, and extended disruptions to this lifeline may have lasting impact on the Yale research infrastructure.

“The true impact is going to depend on how long the shutdown lasts,” Girvin said. “If it’s only two days, it’s not a major deal, but if it stretches to weeks, it’s going to start turning into serious money.”

The NIH ­— the nation’s largest biomedical funder ­— has a grant deadline on Monday. The NIH, where 73 percent of workers are furloughed, has a semi-automated system for grants that allows researchers to submit with more limited human input from the organization, Girvin said.But he added that he is worried whether the systems will be able to keep up during the shutdown. The NSF, on the other hand, does not have an automated system and is neither able to process grants nor pay out approved grant money to researchers during the period.

Yale Associate Vice President for Research Administration Andrew Rudczynski said the NIH and NSF have issued advisories encouraging researchers to hold off on grant submissions. The two organizations plan to issue new deadline dates for any deadlines that may occur during the shutdown, he said, adding that he has not personally seen any direct effects on Yale research projects during these first few days of shutdown.

During the last government shutdown, which lasted 28 days in 1995–1996, Rudczynski said agencies encouraged researchers to continue working and expects them to do the same this time.

“It’s hard to say just what the impact will be,” Rudczynski said. “If there aren’t new grants that have been awarded at the end of this period, then that could cause issues. That’s not to say the grant won’t be made once the shutdown is over, but right now the government can’t make any new awards. It’s a serious issue, and we are all paying close attention to it, but at the moment we are following the agencies’ guidance.”

The shutdown has not impacted professor of chemical and environmental engineering Chinedum Osuji, as all of the funding for a $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy has already arrived. Still, Osuji said he is frustrated that he has been unable to interact with NSF personnel during the shutdown. He added that he still hopes to make a grant deadline at the end of October.

“I also know some of my colleagues have deadlines that have now fallen into a black hole,” he said. “I’m lucky because no funding is due to come in and there is no particular resource related [to] interactions I need, but, for some others, this could spell bad news.”

Many postdocs are NSF funded, and Girvin said the University is looking into how the shutdown may impact their support.

Girvin underscored that this shutdown comes at a difficult time for science research in America. Coupled with years of tight funding for science, the sequester and the looming debt ceiling debate, the shutdown is another hit to researchers, and the country’s scientific credibility in international collaborations.

“There is real damage that is being done to the picture of the research enterprise because of the funding uncertainties and inabilities to give rise to real budgets,” he said. “You can’t just turn [the research enterprise] on and off at will. You’re discouraging people in the pipeline if they think they are going to be spending their time worrying about financing.”

The NIH and NSF were the two largest sources of federal funding to Yale in the year ending June 2012.

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