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Research may face delays amid government shutdown

As the longest government shutdown in United States history approaches its fifth week, researchers who are applying for or who receive federal funding from affected departments may face increasing delays and uncertainty, according to Vice Provost for Research Edward Hackett.

While Brandeis’ largest source of research support, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), remains unaffected by the partial shutdown, the university’s second largest source of funding, the National Science Foundation (NSF), is not open, Hackett told The Brandeis Hoot.

The Brandeis website lists at least nine other departments and agencies affected by the shutdown, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Agency and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

“A physics professor told me she had a proposal pending at the National Science Foundation,” Hackett said. “They should have heard about it in late December and haven’t. Now, we don’t know if that’s an award or a decline, but that’s the problem. We don’t know.”

Researchers have been instructed to continue to adhere to deadlines for grant proposals, even though many agencies will not review proposals until the government reopens.

Although work may continue on most federally funded projects which received rewards prior to the shutdown’s start on Dec. 22, projects could be disrupted if they are housed in a federal facility, include federal personnel, or if the award has terms and conditions which require administrative action to approve a withdrawal of funds, according to the Brandeis website.

Wendy Cadge (SOC), a professor of sociology, told The Hoot via email that she received a grant for 2019 from the NEH for a collaborative project with WBUR and Walking Cinema. Funds for the project, which she said was about “hidden sacred spaces in Boston,” have not been released and the project has not been started due to the shutdown.

Hackett told The Hoot that the university is in the early stages of assessing how many ongoing research projects have been affected by the government shutdown and researchers have been told via email to reach out with concerns.

The university will still get the full amount of grant funding when grants delayed due to the shutdown are eventually funded, according to Hackett. However, he said delays can still mean wasted time and missed opportunities for collaboration.

“The clock ticks, the semester works its way along and the student gets that much closer to graduating or heading home for the semester, and the work remains undone,” he said. But when the government reopens, “then we will just play catch-up,” he said.

He described contracts as “a different animal.”

“Contracts can be ordered to stop work and may not be paid for time lost, and that’s an open question, how a contract will be treated,” Hackett said. The university “may not get the money back ever,” from service contracts which are ordered to stop during the shutdown, he said.

Hackett, who worked as a program officer at the NSF during the 1995-96 shutdown, told The Hoot that he recalled returning to work to find piles of boxes. The 1995-96 shutdown, which lasted from Dec. 15 to Jan. 6, was formerly the longest shutdown, according to The Washington Post.

“If you build a backlog like this, it has to be dealt with somehow,” he said. “We’re so focused on the shutdown that we’re not thinking about the pain coming when we reopen.”

Hackett said he expects that awards will probably be slowed due to the backlog created by the shutdown. “I don’t see how they couldn’t be because the workload is set up so that they would be reviewing and deciding on proposals pretty much throughout the year,” he said.

At government agencies which are not processing grant proposals, work is “just being snow-plowed forward, making a bigger and bigger mountain each day,” according to Hackett.

On Thursday, the Senate held back-to-back votes on Republican and Democratic plans to reopen the government, both of which failed, according to The New York Times. The Democratic plan which would have funded the government for two weeks failed 52-44 with six Republicans crossing party lines. The Republican vote failed 50-48 with only one Democrat voting yes. 60 votes are needed for a spending bill to pass.

“We’re going to need to be patient, have good will, flexibility [and] agility to work our way out of this,” said Hackett, “It’s total uncharted territory, the government hasn’t done this before and there’s no clear end in sight.”

“That’s the hard part,” he said. “There’s much more volatility than we’ve ever seen in something like research.”

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