Government bill ends shutdown, but concerns remain among researchers
As the federal government looks to rebound from a 16-day shutdown, Washington University officials remain anxious over how the crisis may continue to affect research funding.
While the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives finally came to a budget deal Wednesday evening, concerns linger over how the government will bounce back from 16 days off and what kind of legislative backups will result, not to mention the fact that the deal only tides over the federal government until early next year.
University officials said about 300-400 people at the University have had research funding affected by the shutdown, particularly due to the temporary closure of the National Institutes of Health. The University receives more than $350 million from NIH per year, most of which goes to the Washington University School of Medicine.
While the government may be back in session, no one is completely sure what that means for researchers waiting to see if their grants are funded or trying to submit proposals, Jennifer Lodge, associate dean for research at the School of Medicine, said.
“People will speculate, but we really don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s the uncertainty that is a little unsettling,” Lodge said.
The government shut down on Oct. 1 after Congress failed to pass a budget allocation for federal government funding or to compromise on a continuing resolution that would have temporarily extended the current budget while postponing funding for the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare.”
Republicans refused to pass any bill providing funding for the Affordable Care Act while President Barack Obama threatened to veto any decision that delayed the implementation of the act.
This led to 800,000 employees being furloughed and 1.3 million being told to report to work without immediate pay.
The urgency of the situation was heightened by the imminent threat of reaching the debt ceiling, which would have prevented the U.S. Treasury from paying for expenditures past midnight Wednesday.
Wednesday evening, the Senate voted 81-18 to put in place a bipartisan solution to both raise the debt ceiling and reopen the government, later passed by the House 285-144.
During the shutdown, all communication between the University and NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) was cut off, leaving researchers unable to redistribute their budgets or submit new proposals.
Lodge said researchers were discouraged from submitting proposals for this cycle’s Oct. 7 deadline and noted that the main concern for after the shutdown ends is how long it will take to get things back on track.
Normally, proposals submitted over the summer would be in the middle of review, and academics would be informed whether they would receive funding in March. But it remains unclear whether the entire process will be pushed back and, if so, by how much.
She noted that the effect of the shutdown has been significantly greater at other Universities, particularly ones running costly studies with a large number of patients.
For the duration of the shutdown, the University has been working with national associations and the University of Missouri system to convey its concerns, Pamela Lokken, vice chancellor for government and community relations, told Student Life in a statement.
While the closure of national scientific institutions may be serious, Chancellor Mark Wrighton noted that most current University research is not at risk from either sequestration or the shutdown.
“We’re for the most part not dealing with life or death issues on research,” he said.
It isn’t the first time in recent months that the University reached out to the federal government with concerns about research funding.
In an Aug. 8 letter to U.S. Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.), Wrighton voiced concern with the “innovation deficit” resulting from the progressively decreasing investments in higher education and research.
“Increased, sustained federal investment is critical because the nation’s past investments helped to make the U.S. systems of higher education and competitive basic research the global standard. This focused, long-term strategy has led to the innovations and new technologies that fuel the nation’s economy and create jobs,” Wrighton wrote in conjunction with University of Missouri President Timothy Wolfe.
The conversation has not been limited to the University’s administration.
Dr. Ryan Davidson, advocacy manager for the American Chemical Society, spoke to graduate students Wednesday through video chat to explain the state of affairs in Washington, D.C., and describe how cuts in the NIH and NSF might affect them.
He argued that especially now, when the government is looking to cut corners wherever possible, academics have to compete to prove their research is worth funding.
“In the past, the top 15 percent [of proposals] would get funding. As they have less and less money to work with, the range of grants they can fund gets smaller. Now to get an NIH grant, they’re funding the top 7-8 percent of grants,” Davidson said. “You have to make what you’re doing seems so important that someone who has a checkbook should fund you rather than fund armor for soldiers.”
With additional reporting by Richard Matus.