Federal government shutdown could affect University research

Thursday, January 10, 2019 - 6:59pm

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Willa Hua

The partial federal government shutdown is affecting a number of U.S. agencies, including ones that fund research at the University of Michigan.

The shutdown, which began Dec. 21, 2018 over a spending bill including potential funding for President Trump’s proposed border wall, has lasted 21 days with no clear end in sight. In the meantime, approximately 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed or are working without pay.

The National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Department of Commerce, and the National Endowment for the Humanities are among the federal agencies funding University research that are being affected. Federal institutions funded more than half of the University’s research spending money in fiscal year 2018. Alex Piazza, senior communications manager for the Office of Research, cited these statistics, noting how helpful the federal funding has been to the University.

“We're the number one public research university in the country in terms of research expenditures, at $1.55 billion a year,” Piazza said. “About 55 percent of that stems from the federal government, so the partnerships we've created with the federal government have really been great over the years for us."

Stephanie Rowley, associate vice president for research in social sciences and humanities, highlighted the importance of federal funding as well, bringing attention especially to research in the humanities. Rowley wrote in an email to The Daily how essential support from the National Endowment for the Humanities is for humanities faculty members.

“I'd like to emphasize the potential for faculty in the humanities to be affected given the shutdown of the NEH,” Rowley wrote. “Our humanities faculty rely on NEH for fellowships that support humanities scholarship. Support from the federal government helps our researchers here at the University of Michigan spur advancements in a variety of areas ranging from the arts and humanities to medicine and mobility.”

Jack Hu, vice president for research at the University, said the largest source of federal funding comes from the National Institutes of Health, which is operating normally during the shutdown. According to Hu, the current situation is not dire, as ongoing research projects are not being immediately affected. However, because of the shutdown, researchers cannot send in project proposals, and proposals submitted earlier are not being looked at, he said.

“From the 22nd (of December) until earlier last week, many faculty and students were not here, so the impact of the government shutdown on research was not very significant,” Hu said. “However, due to the shutdown, we could not submit proposals to the NSF and those agencies that are impacted by the government shutdown. Also, proposals that went in earlier are not being reviewed."

This, Hu said, could have long-term effects that might halt future research, leaving research faculty in limbo.

"The delay of proposals, proposal review may have a longer-term impact,” Hu said. “As the shutdown drags on, then there will be gaps for research faculty who are expecting support or anticipating support from those agencies, and they will not know until the government reopens and proposal reviews restart."

Bradford Orr, associate vice president of research in natural sciences and engineering, echoed Hu’s comments. He said as of yet, no researcher has approached him with serious funding problems, but rather with grant deadline or review panel issues.

“There have been researchers that have come and said to me that they have been impacted in the sense that there was a review panel that was supposed to take place but now it's not going to take place, or that a deadline for a grant is likely to be changed, or is likely to be postponed,” Orr said. “There's no one that's come to me and said, ‘I haven't received my money and therefore am not able to pay for this and this bill.’ We're not at that spot yet."

Orr noted this pause in research proposal acceptance and review panels will delay the start times of research projects. Orr said this will mostly cause inconvenience, but if the shutdown continues, there could be more serious issues.

“What's going to happen for sure is that the start time and review time of proposals is going to be drawn out,” Orr said. “That will happen; it's happening now. And that can be dealt with. It's inconvenient, but where it becomes serious is where payments to grants that already exist aren't made and therefore bills such as salaries couldn't be paid.”

Hu said he was confident in the University’s ability to fund research in the short-term, but if the shutdown carries on, there will be bigger consequences.

“Overall, I think Michigan's financial position is strong,” Hu said. “Our research funding is strong. So in the short term, we managed well. But if the shutdown continues, drags on, then we will be impacted much more."