Shut Down, Frozen Out

For the three weeks the federal government was shut down this December and January, the building housing the National Science Foundation (NSF) had little heat and light.

“We did have it in the offices where we were working, but you would walk into a building and would be dark with only natural light around,” said NSF Deputy Director Anne Petersen. “The heat was turned down quite a bit. Immediately you had this feeling of it being a different place.”

Two feet of snow kept federal offices closed another week, so by the time federal workers returned to work, the government had been closed down for about a month. For researchers and scientists, this meant that grant proposals and awards were not being processed by two chief sponsors: the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NSF. For officials at NIH and NSF, the shutdown illustrated the precarious position occupied by science research and education.


At the NIH, staff sifted through a backlog of approximately 4,000 grant awards that were eligible to be paid. APS Member and NIH Deputy Director of Extramural Research Wendy Baldwin said that by the time the shutdown ended, “we were down almost a billion dollars worth of research support that should have been distributed.” Over at NSF, returning staff were welcomed by more than 40,000 pieces of mail and almost 3,000 proposals that had accumulated since December 15, the last working day before the three-week federal shutdown.

In addition to the mountains of paperwork, NIH and NSF staff, like many govenunent employees, were upset that the shutdown occurred, unsure of their job security, and, for some, hurt by having been sent home as “non-essential” staff.

“It is clear that a lot of people don’t appreciate federal workers and … for  people who work incredibly long hours, work very hard, work weekends, use their own money to bring in food for panels- to be told that they are ‘nonessential’ and that we can do without them is really worse than insulting,” said Petersen, an APS Charter Fellow.

Researchers also fear that the shutdown has left a more far-reaching, negative impression about the importance of science and research.

“I think the broader impacts are even more serious,” said Petersen. “I think that all of this budget debate, especially in terms of research and education, causes a loss of confidence in whether this is a federal priority. Certainly it affects government workers, but I think it also makes everyone feel a little uneasy about this enterprise.”

NSF Director Neal Lane has said that the shutdown endangered the nation’s science research and education base, and in a January 15 speech, he chastised the science and technology research communities on their perceived silence during the crisis.

“[I]f you don’t take it as one of your professional responsibilities to inform your fellow citizens about the importance of the science and technology enterprise,” he said, “then the public support, critical to sustaining it, isn’t going to be there.”

Budget Blues

On December 18, thousands of federal employees, classified as “nonessential,” were sent home from work. Meanwhile, employees deemed “essential” stayed on the job, handicapped severely in their work by the combined lack of fund s and personnel. Failing to reach a compromise on the budget, the President and Congress had effected the second federal shutdown of the year. The first shutdown took place in November and lasted for six days. This latest one would cross over into the new year and continue for 21 days, only to be stretched almost a week longer by the “Blizzard of ’96” that swept over the East Coast.

When the government reopened, NIH was twice blessed: first, when it was among a handful of federal agencies to get a year-long budget and second, when the budget reflected a 5.7 percent increase over the previous year.  Meanwhile, NSF continues to operate under the authority of a continuing resolution that will keep funding alive until at least March 15.

NSF released a statement January 30 in which it said that a prorated portion of the funding under the continuing resolution is being made available for obligation for new and continuing grants, contracts, cooperative agreements, and all activities NSF usually undertakes.

“It would be very nice to have a budget,” said Petersen. “The worst part about that- not having a budget for a year- is that we have been trying to encourage people to get money out the door as if we are going to have the budget we expect, but people feel uneasy about that and keep worrying about the worst-case scenarios. Especially for big projects with some of our big facilities, we’ve had to hold money. We’ve been sending their money out in installments and that is very hard on those big facilities.” Petersen said she didn’t expect another shutdown after March 15, “but we’ve been surprised before.”

Better Late Than Never?

The most obvious effect of the federal shutdown on researchers has been the delay in proposal review and grant funding. This has affected everyone from researchers to graduate assistants to university support staff and budget offices. Not only is research, which is often time-sensitive, delayed and possibly made obsolete, but gaps in funding mean there is no money available to pay student and non-student research assistants and secretarial and clerical staff support. In addition, university budget offices are thrown by the instability in funding and must determine if they should bear the costs of sustaining timely research.

With voice mailboxes full and no one there to answer questions, both NIH and NSF set up pages on the World Wide Web to specifically address the shutdown and its consequences. “The response we’ve gotten from researchers is that the home page has really helped them,” said Belinda Seto, Baldwin’s senior advisor. “Of course they can’t call anyone or fax to anyone and get a response, so the home page was sort of a light in a dark tunnel. The home page has been a way of keeping everyone as informed as possible so researchers didn’t feel like they were completely cut off.”

Despite the best efforts of both agencies, though, many researchers are still unsure of what will happen. APS Past President Marilynn Brewer, of Ohio State University, whose competitive renewal grant proposal has been delayed by the shutdown, said her project will be postponed by several months.  Despite having gone through the peer review process and being recommended for funding by NSF’s Social Psychology Program, the award is being held up in light of current budget uncertainties.

“The grant that I had submitted was proposed to start on January 1 of this year and, even if I do get funded- and that still has several steps to go through-it will obviously be four or five months later than I had hoped,” she said. “This means that a graduate student who would have gotten funding on the grant has to find other funding for the rest of the year. The whole academic year is basically lost as far as graduate assistance is concerned.”

According to Baldwin, NIH advisory councils were adversely affected by the shutdown. “Two councils had to reschedule, and many councils had to adapt to the fact that they got material late,” she said. “The shutdown and budget uncertainty leading up to the shutdown put NIH significantly behind in processing research support for the year.”

A total of 17 NSF review panels had to be canceled due to the shutdown, said Petersen, meaning it is going to be several months before it is business as usual for research funding. “There are two kinds of delays,” she said. “One is that for any grants that were in panels that had to be postponed, it may take longer in the review process. We did develop a streamline process for continuing grants so that they can get out expeditiously, but for things that have to be reviewed … there may be some consequences.” The biggest delays, she added, were in new initiatives.

“Also, as we look ahead to programs the Foundation was planning to initiate, we’ve had to postpone about a third of those, and definitely another third will shift over into the next fiscal year, and one-third we’ll be able to do this year,”  Petersen said. “Some things we were able to catch up on and some things just can’t be retrieved so quickly. We were basically gone for a month.”

Gaps in funding mean lost opportunities for some researchers. Researcher Joan Vondra, of the University of Pittsburgh, lamented that her research may be made obsolete by funding delays. Vondra’s grant proposal, under the Human Capital Initiative program, would study low-income children making the transition to school. It would follow up on 200 children who have been studied since they were infants, in order to understand how individual and family factors help at-risk children succeed in the transition to school.

“The time constraint in doing developmental research is very real,” wrote Vondra, “If these children, their families, and teachers are not contacted this spring, it will be too late to get accurate information about making the transition to kindergarten and first grade. The five years of data collection we’ve undertaken will not be able to be used for the proposed study of the transition to school.”

The fast and furious work of NSF staff, though, has paid off for some researchers, like Bruce Ovennier, who found out about his grant only moments before being contacted by APS staff for this story.

“I just got off the phone with NSF and they are going to fund the grant proposal and they are going to give me an April start date, instead of the original March start date,” said Overmier. “I think it is just miraculous. [NSF] clearly went out of their way to make this possible.”

Ovemier’s research program involves 10 undergraduate students and about a dozen faculty. “My fear was that we wouldn’t get funded and wouldn’t get information in a timely manner,” he said. “We have to let students know by the first week in April, otherwise the students make other plans for the summer. It was possible that even if they had been able to provide an award to us by the summer, that we wouldn’t have had any students to bring on board. We will be able to work around this delay. Our program will run as if nothing had happened. I was scared to death but now I am delighted and have nothing but praise for what they have done.”

Overmier added that NSF deserves praise, not criticism, for their work since the shutdown. “So many people are complaining, but these people are clearly doing all that they can do, and more,” he said.

Demoralizing, Depressing, Demeaning

For the National Institute on Drug  Abuse (NIDA), Director Alan l. Leshner said the shutdown cost more in staff morale than in actual delays.

“The shutdown was the single most demoralizing, depressing event that I have seen in the federal government,” said Leshner, an APS Charter Fellow. “It was demeaning to be told that you are not important and that the country can do without you, even for a month. The implication that what you do is anything but important is a terrible message.”

Despite the month-long shutdown, said Leshner, NIDA’s backlog was relatively small. “NIDA was exceptionally well prepared,” said Leshner. “[O]ur administrative staff and our program staff were sort of anticipating it, and so things were primed so that almost no [NIDA grantees] got seriously impacted. We have been a bit slow in making awards … but the NIDA staff worked tremendously hard at both ends- before the shutdown and immediately after it and we are basically pretty well caught up.” Leshner said that approximately 90 percent of NIDA’s staff were considered “non-essential” and that the work was next to impossible for the employees who did work through the furlough. “The shutdown was bad for both sides,” said Leshner, referring to the employees who were furloughed and the employees who remained on the job. While no work was being done by the people who were not in the office, progress was stymied for those who were.

“It was really a terrible problem. That is to say that [non-furloughed staff] couldn’t do any work, because there was no one here. ”

Leshner credits the dedication of the NIDA staff for the minimum impact of the shutdown. “There was tremendous potential for backlog and initially there was a backlog, but the NIDA staff worked very, very hard. We had our council meeting on time and we had our study sessions on time and grants are going to be made, but people have really had to go the extra mile to accomplish that. The NIDA staff really handled this very well, but they were discouraged by it and appropriately so.”

Leshner noted, with irony, how essential the “non-essential” employees were. “Exactly the same people who were allowed to be called ‘non-essential, ‘” he said, “worked like mad in order to make all of this possible.”

Petersen said that should another shutdown occur after the current continuing resolution runs out March 15, the biggest impact would probably be on staff morale.

“If we shut down again, it sounds like we are telling lies,” she said. “This is not how it is supposed to work. It will really begin to look like a pattern, and then I think people who work here will really begin to have a very different concept of what it means to be a part of the federal workforce. It just tells people that they are not valued by their employers, which are the public ultimately.”

Assuming a Proactive Approach

“One thing that has been striking during this year of budget battles and, most recently, the shutdown, is the perceived stony silence of the science and technology community-the universities, where most of the fundamental research is done, and with a few exceptions, business and industry, which depend on the knowledge and technologies research provides,” said NSF’s Lane at the January meeting of the American Astronomical Society. “And I can assure you that this perceived lack of concern has not gone unnoticed in Washington.”

Lane’s words echo a growing fear among research agencies officials that science and education research funding has become excessively vulnerable, and that researchers are not doing enough to secure the public’s confidence in the importance of scientific research—especially within the behavioral sciences.

“I think we [in the behavioral sciences] are really beginning to have a number of things going on and we are beginning to be better positioned for really advancing, “ said Petersen of NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate. “[Especially] in terms of anything that has to do with cognition in the brain, but I think in other areas too. I think that our field could have begun a period of really significant growth and I think [the shutdown] puts it in question. Without the money, progress is just much more difficult. I think it will still take place, because science is driven by ideas. But there are issues of critical mass and resources to be able to do that.”

Petersen added that the initial response of many researchers was that the shutdown minimally, if at all, impacted research. In addition, based on the phone calls, mail, and e-mail she received, Petersen said it seemed many researchers were not aware NSF was shut down along with other government agencies.

“We were very distressed by that because, of course, that was taken by Congress as evidence that funding for these fields doesn’t matter,” she said. “The days of doing research and assuming that money is going to come, are over. If we want to expect continued funding for our work, we have to be sure the public understands why this is an important investment for the federal government.”

It is in this effort that psychologists and behavioral scientists can play an especially important role, she said. “We should be able to talk with the public about the importance of our research. I think there are things that people can understand. It is really easier, I believe than talking about basic physics or basic work in math or other fields,” she added.

Petersen encourages the citizen-scientist concept in which researchers proactively integrate understanding of their research into their community. In order to convey to the public what a particular researcher’s work has done, for example, a university’s public affairs office can help put stories in newspapers, journals, and other media that reach a broader public.

Additionally, scientific societies, as part of their lobbying efforts, can more emphatically communicate the importance of the entire research enterprise and use their particular field and contributions as examples.

“People need to understand that when they have federal grants, they are spending taxpayer dollars and they deserve to let the taxpayers know what good they are doing them,” said Petersen. “The broader public issues are connected with government issues, congressional, in particular. If the broader public is enthusiastic about science, then their elected representatives will have the message right away. This needs to be a two-pronged effort because I think that either alone won’t be effective.”

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