Shutdown halts university research

The federal government shutdown is well into its third week as the impasse in Washington, D.C. continues to halt operations. While the two major political parties clash ideologies at the Capitol, the shutdown has caused a ripple effect that is having negative consequences around the country. Among the causalities are universities that are trying to fund scientific research projects, both locally and around the globe.

“There was an immediate effect to a small number of projects around the university system where funding was stopped,” said Tim Holst, executive vice chancellor of academic affairs. “We were given instructions to stop spending money on them immediately. To my knowledge, these were funds that had to do with national parks.”

As a result of the shutdown, all national parks have been closed.  Government-sponsored grants are not being processed, and no money is being moved into researchers’ accounts.

According to Holst, UMD receives $700 to $800 million a year in sponsored funds.  Holst estimates that equals around $60 to $70 million a month.

Holst said that some projects are able to get by on shoestring budgets until the government reopens, but not for too long.

“The university could maybe go for a month; I don’t know,” Holst said. “That’s the issue. The funds are going to be there eventually once the government starts up again. It’s just a matter of when.”

Two of the major federal programs that are responsible for bringing in funding for projects are the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.  With the shutdown, there are no federal workers to process new proposals.

Holst is the authorized administrator who is responsible for submitting the proposals to the federal agencies.  He says that when the government isn’t shutdown, he submits nearly a dozen proposals almost daily.

Many of the agencies have electronic submitting systems, where the proposals are sent over the Internet to a government website.

“For some of the federal agencies, we’re getting conflicting instructions on what to do,” Holst said. “Some of them say, ‘Go ahead and submit, but we won’t look at them until we return,’ and others are saying, ‘Don’t even try to submit; you might screw things up.’ It’s a little difficult to know what to do.”

A major area of research that has been hit has been on the continent of Antarctica. Thousands of researchers around the globe depend on the U.S. logistical infrastructure to move supplies in and out of their bases.

UMD geology professor John Goodge has been studying Antarctica for many years. While he has a few current projects that deal with Antarctica, he has already received the funding and has been mostly unaffected by the shutdown. However, he knows many scientists who have been affected and sees many consequences to the interrupted research.

“With the shutdown, they’ve pretty much been forced to say they’re going to stop these operations,” Goodge said. “Anybody that had already headed to Antarctica, they’re being called back.”

Researchers generally head to Antarctica during September and October. According to Goodge, there is a small window of time for researchers to do work there. If they can’t go now, they will be forced to wait a year.

“Some of these are very time-sensitive projects,” Goodge said. “They have technical staff, or graduate and undergraduate students that had thesis projects and were lined up to work (in Antarctica). What are they supposed to do? They have to wait a whole year.”

Goodge also talked about how a whole year of interrupted data collection has major detrimental effects to the research.

“For a project that is monitoring something like weather and climate, or sea ice or glacial movements, there might be losses of data that would interrupt a long-term process,” he said.

Instruments that have been left in the field to collect data will not be retrieved, and damage may occur over time. As no instruments are being replaced, this essentially leads to two years of uncollected data.

“It will all get straightened out eventually,” Holst said. “ We’re still proceeding with the work we normally do here. We’re working with faculty who are planning on submitting grants, helping them get proposals ready so that we’ll be all set once the government starts up again. I’ll be pressing a lot of submit buttons that day.”



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