Shutdown obstructs funding for research

Courtesy of Yakota Air Base.

“We strive to keep any semblance of sanity and balance,” laughed Vassar’s Associate Vice President of Corporate, Foundation and Government Relations Gary F. Hohenberger, heaping files atop his desk suggesting he may have only been partly joking. “But when there’s a scramble because of any federal reward, it affects the quality of attention and amount of time we have.”

Because Hohenberger acts as a primary point of contact guiding faculty through grant applications for research programs, his life at the Grants Office had been disrupted by the historically long government shutdown. Spanning from Dec. 22, 2018 until Jan. 25, 2019 and rendering nearly 800,000 federal workers furloughed or forced to work without pay for 35 days, the partial shutdown left countless professionals seeking research funding from federal agencies, particularly those in higher education institutions, grappling in the dark with uncertainty and delay (NYT, “Government Shutdown Timeline: See How the Effects Are Piling Up,” 01.28.2019). At Vassar, professors applying for federal grants from closed agencies were uncertain how to proceed—whether to wait for their agency to reopen or blindly continue working on their applications. A number of these professors, unable to get in touch with federal program staff who would under normal circumstances counsel them through the nuances of their individual program applications, sought Hohenberger for advice, leaving the Grants Office scrambling for information and time as it attempted to address a number of concerns. “It’s been fairly frantic not only for those reasons, but because it creates just general unease, which then affects all the other work we do,” Hohenberger added.

Since Vassar has a modest approximately 110 active grants, about a fifth of them federal, the College was not financially pressed to the same degree as larger institutions, which are more dependent on federal research funding. Additionally, many Vassar professors had already secured research funds for 2019. Nevertheless, professors seeking grant funding from The National Science Foundation (NSF), the source of the majority of Vassar’s government-awarded grants, were burdened by lack of ability to communicate with agents, postponed deadlines and general ambivalence. When the shutdown commenced, Professor of Biology and Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair and Cognitive Science Department Chair John H. Long, Jr. was beginning an NSF grant proposal for a project on shark behavior, with collaborators from Florida Atlantic University, Colby College and the Steinhart Aquarium. He had organized a meeting with two program officers in early January, in which he planned to discuss a pre-proposal in order to pinpoint which NSF division would merge a computer scientist, biologist and aquarium director’s research. However, neither program officer showed to their conference with Long because they were furloughed. “It mean[t] more time between now and us getting the money to actually do the work,” Long summarized. He and his collaborators, uncertain about which program to submit their proposal, were left with lingering questions and delay.

Meanwhile, NSF’s backed-up system prevented Long from submitting his annual report for a separate million dollar project, the deadline of which just so happened to fall in December. According to Long, the NSF requires annual reports to ensure that grant money is being put toward valuable projects, since Congress approves the NSF’s budget. According to Long, “If you don’t file an annual report, they will not reward you another grant.” However, Long and his collaborators could not file their annual report, as the system would not accept it during the early stages of the shutdown. This could potentially become problematic if Long were to apply for a different grant, while his previous report had yet to be accepted. “It seemed like they were taking submissions on some things even when you didn’t have your annual report,” Long contemplated, bewildered about the details himself. “It’s unclear what’s going on with NSF.” If the potential shark researchers are ready to submit their proposal come Feb. 15, and the NSF has yet to accept Long’s annual report for his pre-existing grant, Long is uncertain whether NSF will accept his submission.

Assistant Professor of Biology Myra C. Hughey experienced similar delays due to the shutdown in her application to an NSF grant that would supplement an existing grant her collaborator obtained. Starting this spring, Hughey and her colleagues from Washington State University School of Biological Sciences (one of whom is a visiting scholar at Vassar this semester, Erica Crespi) are conducting a study on the impact of salinity on the microbiome of larval amphibians, particularly wood frogs, and how that might change interactions with Ranavirus. Although Hughey knew which program to apply to, like Long, she could not contact her program officer to discuss the nuances of the application. Hughey and her collaborators debated whether to apply for the grant at all, but decided to proceed with their application despite these uncertainties. “We were kind of flying blind,” Hughey reflected.

Although Hughey promptly heard back from her program officer and was able to submit her proposal when the government reopened on Jan. 25, it remains unclear how grants will be reviewed given the residual backlog that now exists. “When [federal agencies] reopen, all these hopefuls crowd in there, and you can imagine the backlog and…the specter of anxiety,” Hohenberger said. “We’re hoping that the bottlenecking of work for the agencies won’t affect [opportunities] in any adverse way.”

Further delay brought by agents’ increased workloads carries potentially dire consequences for time-sensitive projects, such as Hughey’s seasonal work with amphibians. Hughey has a small window of time to gather wood frog eggs for her research, given that wood frogs only breed for a couple of days a year in the spring. Moreover, Crespi will only be at Vassar to research with Hughey until June. Although Hughey could potentially research independently with smaller funding from a different source, she said that collaboration with Crespi is crucial for a comprehensive study. “This is basically the only opportunity we have to get this research going, get this grant, where we’ll both be in the same place at the same time,” she remarked. “The timing is pretty key here.” Certain opportunities—whether collaboration with a particular colleague or work on a particular species—do, in fact, only come once. An unpredictable funding conflict caused by a shutdown impedes such projects, some of which can be critical for professors’ careers.

NSF workers are aware of such repercussions and are actively working to prevent them. Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Lynn Christenson, a Rotating Program Director in the Division of Environmental Biology (DEB) at NSF, worked throughout the shutdown while her colleagues were furloughed because her position was classified under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act as “exempt.” Christenson, whose own NSF Long Term Ecological Research at Hubbard Brook forest experienced delay since U.S. Forest Service scientists could not work, acknowledged the risks researchers of time-sensitive projects face during a partial shutdown. She added that federal scientists who could not enter their labs may have lost critical data that they will never recover.

Impacted by the delay herself, Christenson offered an insider view of efforts to overcome the backlog immediately following the shutdown: “For those folks furloughed, the first day [back at work] was spent getting through email[s]. They worked very quickly to identify the most important items to deal with first. The people I work with in DEB have been…process[ing] the most critical grants first.”

According to Christenson, the research community has supported furloughed individuals throughout the shutdown. She shared that, on the first day back at work, top administrators greeted new returnees with coffee and doughnuts. Although optimistic that NSF will review proposals and fund grants in a timely manner, Christenson expressed concern about further difficulties that a potential resumption of the shutdown could pose. She wrote in an email, “We feel like we are back on track, but the impending potential shutdown could really slow us down.”

In contrast to the short-staffing of NSF, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) remained open throughout the partial shutdown. Assistant Professor of Psychological Science Bojana Zupan received a $331,000 federal NIH grant for her study of the Fragile X protein, which is associated with characteristics linked to autism (Vassar Stories, “Professor Bojana Zupan Awarded $331,000 Federal Grant,” 01.21.2019). According to Zupan, “The NIH was not shut down due to the Department of Health and Human Services being one of the few with already approved budgets.” Long, a full supporter of Zupan’s research, indicated that NIH’s remaining open throughout the partial shutdown while NSF was closed indicates the government’s anthropocentrism. “A lot of times, these decisions about what’s essential and what isn’t are political,” he remarked.

Despite professors’ relative success in overcoming the setbacks posed by the shutdown, Hohenberger revealed that Vassar faces larger institutional risks when funding research during a shutdown. Vassar operates as cash-deficient, meaning that when researchers present an availability of funds, such as an NSF grant, Vassar fronts spending on the project and withdraws funds from the Treasury at a later date. “It’s kind of a back-filing. We don’t have cash on hand,” Hohenberger summarized. This presents some risk during a shutdown because Vassar is fronting institutional moneys in hopes that it will be able to replenish its expenditures later. “There’s a lot of faith involved in these situations,” he disclosed.

Hopeful that the government will remain open, Hohenberger considered the numerous possibilities if, come Feb. 15, the shutdown resumes: “[Will] we [be] forfeiting additional opportunities? Will deadlines that are open between now and then be reviewed fairly and at a reasonable timeline? Will things that in normal circumstances have been regarded more flexibly be grounds for dismissal? There’s this field of uncertainty that we just have to walk with.”

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