Shutdown stirs uncertainty for UMN researchers

Longest government shutdown in history puts University in untested waters with consequences looming.

The Northern Research Station is seen on Saturday, Jan. 19, in Saint Paul. The building, administrated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been empty since the government shutdown in December. Researchers with offices in the building have moved to makeshift workspaces on campus to conduct their work.

Courtney Deutz

The Northern Research Station is seen on Saturday, Jan. 19, in Saint Paul. The building, administrated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been empty since the government shutdown in December. Researchers with offices in the building have moved to makeshift workspaces on campus to conduct their work.

Jake Steinberg

As the University of Minnesota spends $500,000 a day for research projects typically funded by the federal government, a continued federal government shutdown sows uncertainty for the future of landmark projects throughout campus. 

The month-long partial shutdown is disrupting funding for faculty and students and crippling projects dependent on federal partners. Although much of the University’s research continues unaffected, officials said things will worsen as the shutdown continues.

Top funders of University research are closed, affecting nearly 1,300 awards backing University research, according to the Office of the Vice President for Research.

The shutdown hasn’t affected all departments equally. The National Institutes of Health remains funded, leaving the health sciences largely unaffected, said Vice President for Research Chris Cramer. But the National Science Foundation and the Department of Agriculture are closed.

“As long as faculty have funding left in these awards, they’re able to continue spending them,” said Associate Vice President for Research Pamela Webb. 

But researchers who need sponsor approval on a spending change can’t get it, hamstringing their work. Those awards pay for things like faculty salaries, graduate students and equipment costs. 

“Many researchers are funded grant-to-grant,” Cramer said. “There’s an expectation that as one ends, another will pick up.” 

While sponsoring agencies are closed, the University isn’t getting reimbursed. Cramer said there are serious long-term consequences to a prolonged shutdown.

“If we run into gap periods,” Cramer said, “then the University is on the hook to fund the research.”

The University has fronted $10 million in unreimbursed research expenses since the shutdown began, said Assistant Chief Financial Officer Mike Volna.

“With the federal spigot closing off, it’s pretty easy to see that we are essentially loaning the federal government money from state funds and student tuition,” Volna said.

He projected the figure to rise to nearly $14 million by the end of January. Because the University is spending money that would have been sitting in an account, that money isn’t gaining interest. Volna said the University has forgone $25,000 in interest — slightly higher than the cost of one in-state student’s tuition, room and board for a year.

The University has been reimbursed after previous shutdowns, and University officials expect the same when the government reopens this time. 

Cramer said it’s risky for the University to float research costs as the shutdown continues. If it lasts another month, Cramer said spending $500,000 a day will become unsustainable.

“When that happens, we’ll have to make a decision,” he said. “The University just can’t write a check like that every day to keep the operation running.”

At a Friday round-table with University research officials, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., pledged to ensure the University is fully reimbursed for its research expenses. McCollum is the incoming chair of the Appropriations Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee, which oversees spending for multiple shut-down agencies.

“The work in the University’s mission is important and the federal government needs to be a partner,” she said. “We have to make sure that we make you whole again.”

Unreimbursable losses

“Even when the government comes back, and the money comes back, that time won’t,” said Greg Cuomo, associate dean for research of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences .

Cuomo said CFANS research has been especially hit by the shutdown. Along with the NSF and USDA, other key partners are closed. Many faculty have to work around their federal colleagues’ absences. For some, there’s nothing more they can do.

Heather Koop, associate director of the Minnesota Invasive Terrestrial Plants and Pests Center, is working with the United States Forest Service on a handheld device that can diagnose oak trees with the deadly oak wilt fungus. Because oaks are particularly susceptible to infection when cut, Koop said the device can only be tested in the winter. But her Forest Service partners are on furlough and the project is stalled.

“We’ll lose this field season,” she said. “Minnesotans have invested almost a quarter million dollars into this project and it will take another year then to complete.”

Officials expect problems to continue after the government reopens. Webb said the government will have to catch up on grant proposals in the pipeline, resulting in funding gaps and permanent scientific losses.

“We’re mortgaging the future of our science because we need a constant flow of proposals going out,” said Paul Morin, director of the University’s Polar Geospatial Center.

Morin heads a project to continuously measure the planet’s topography. It produces 50 terabytes of data a week used to measure things like sea-level rise and permafrost melt. But the data needs to be validated by NASA and is stored on a federally funded computer. 

“We’re producing data now that is key to meeting other scientists’ science goals,” he said. “So we have this science supply chain that is interrupted.”

“My other plants are probably dead now”

Nick Phelps was ready for the shutdown. He grabbed his laptop and a plant that would be easy to care for. He left the aloe and the clivia. 

Phelps is one of 18 faculty, staff and graduate students who were displaced when the Forest Service-owned North Central Research Station on the St. Paul campus locked its doors for the third shutdown in the last year.

Phelps, associate director of the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center, and other displaced researchers have been squatting in unoccupied offices, conference rooms and foyers for the last month.

Phelps said CFANS has been accommodating, and the many researchers will be moving into longer-term spaces after classes start Tuesday.

However, his troubles won’t be over. He’s working with the United States Geological Survey to plan Minnesota’s biggest ever experimental treatment for zebra mussels, which he said has great potential to combat the invasive species.

“We’re really excited about it, but I have no idea what’s happening,” he said.

Also closed is the USDA-owned Cereal Disease Lab, where researchers are working on making wheat resistant to a fungal infection that threatens global food security.

“We have at least six graduate students and 12 post-docs whose research is in there,” said Cuomo at Friday’s round-table. “When microbial cultures dry out, they die. Nobody is out there to put the treatments in.”