Partial Government Shutdown Ends, Effects Continue
The longest partial shutdown of the US federal government in history ended Friday, January 25, but its effects are still being felt at the University of Minnesota and at other research universities, and the temporary nature of the government reopening is also causing continued uncertainty among affected sponsor agencies, researchers and disciplines, and higher education leaders.
According to Mike Volna, associate vice president for finance, the University anticipates resumption of payments from shutdown agencies to reimburse the roughly $10 million the institution has accrued in research expenses on preexisting sponsored research projects from shutdown agencies. Nearly 25 percent of the U’s sponsored projects are funded by the previously shutdown agencies, which included the National Science Foundation (NSF), USDA, NASA, EPA and the National Endowment for the Arts. (The National Institutes of Health, the University’s largest federal funding source, was not directly affected by the shutdown, having had its entire fiscal year 2019 budget approved last October.)
“With this temporary reprieve, we know some agencies will be able to begin work—including reimbursement—on existing research awards, but in awarding new grants and renewals, agency staff are likely to be much more risk averse,” said Chris Cramer, the University’s vice president for research.
On the possible long-term effects of the five week shutdown, Jennifer Poulakidas, vice president for congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, told Politico, “It’s this crazy snowball impact on the research process, the research cycle. The impacts are going to be long-lasting, because of all the sort of lead-up time and setup time to actually having research conducted.”
At a January 22 meeting at Northrop Auditorium with Senator Tina Smith, D-Minn., researchers and staff from U of M Duluth; the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences; Northrop Auditorium; the Minnesota Invasive Terrestrial Plants & Pests Center; and the Polar Geospatial Center illustrated the complications and delays facing their projects. Among the effects were an inability to collect data and field samples within a limited time frame, the closing of federally supported research facilities on campus, postponed hiring decisions for graduate students and postdocs, and the delays graduate students could face in completing the work needed to make progress toward their degrees. (Congresswoman Betty McCollum, D-Minn., held a similar roundtable at the St. Paul Campus on January 18.)
At the Northrop meeting, Pamela Webb, associate vice president for research administration, warned that federal agencies would face a large backlog of workload once the government reopened. The Washington Post reported that NSF, the second largest federal funder of University of Minnesota research, has a backlog of 2,000 unreviewed project proposals and has cancelled more than a hundred outside panels that review proposals.
On January 28, the first workday that shuttered agencies were reopened, Cramer said, “On the ground, we are happy that researchers can now access federal facilities on campus and that they can talk to these agencies again, but we know that people have had to delay or cancel planned aspects of important research projects—that’s time lost that can’t be made up.”
The University will continue to share information it obtains from reopened agencies at the Sponsored Projects Administration website, Cramer said.