Second shutdown averted, but first lingers

Three weeks after the shutdown ended, some University researchers still don’t know if they’ll be getting funding.

Jake Steinberg

The nation avoided another government shutdown Friday, but University of Minnesota researchers are still feeling the effects of the last one.

When President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan budget deal to keep the government funded through September, Department of Entomology Head Sujaya Rao was wondering what happened to her grant proposal from June. 

Two project funders among the University’s biggest — the National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture — emerged from the shutdown to find a month’s worth of grant proposals awaiting review. The backlog has delayed proposal reviews. Three weeks after the shutdown ended, University researchers still don’t know if they’ll receive funding.

“We were able to submit proposals all through the shutdown. It’s just that once they got there, they didn’t go anywhere,” said Associate Vice President for Research Pamela Webb. 

NSF received about 2,000 proposals during the 35-day shutdown, Webb said. But it wasn’t just new proposals that froze. NSF also had to cancel 111 previously scheduled review panels. The story is similar for other federal sponsors.

Soil ecology professor Jessica Gutknecht still hasn’t received funding she was expecting from the USDA on Jan. 1.

“My program officers who would administer that grant are still really backlogged and are trying really hard to catch up on things,” she said. “So now I’m kind of waiting and seeing.”

Her award would fund research on how sustainable agriculture techniques can improve soil quality and make crops more resistant to climate change. Gutknecht said her program officers are committed to getting her the funding before the snow melts.

“It’s been a headache, but I don’t think it’s going to kill the project,” she said. “If I was in a position where I would’ve needed to hire people and get them ready and trained before that field season, I’d be in much worse shape than I am now.”

Rao isn’t so lucky. Her proposal would fund a joint project with the Department of Plant Pathology that would train students for careers in plant pathology and entomology. It’s a new program they’ve never tried before, she said. But it’s going to be more difficult to pull off the longer they have to wait to get the signal they have funding. 

“We’re going to be needing to recruit pretty quickly because students are going to start making plans for the summer,” she said. “If you want to recruit the best, it would have been nice to have heard in December or January.”

Webb said the University has started getting awards again from previously furloughed agencies. She said the government is “100 percent caught up” in its reimbursement payments for the over $10 million in research costs the University paid during the shutdown. But there were some costs the University couldn’t cover.

Sean Ehlman found himself “in the thick of it” during the shutdown, and not because he was in the jungle at the time. He’s an NSF postdoctoral fellow working in the College of Biological Sciences. His funding comes from the federal government and doesn’t go through the University before he gets it. That means when the government shut down, he missed a $4,500 stipend payment.

“At the time, I was in Trinidad. I was having to deal with talking to my landlord and having to reshuffle bills and having to take on credit card debt. That was stressful,” he said.

The University couldn’t pay Ehlman or the other NSF fellows during the shutdown because it would have violated the terms of their fellowship. Going forward, the Office of the Vice President for Research and individual colleges will offer loans to federally funded postdoctoral researchers in future shutdowns.

“We can’t have our postdocs not getting paid and we can’t jeopardize their employment by violating the contract they’re under,” said Greg Cuomo, associate dean for research for the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “We learned a lesson and said ‘okay, we have to be prepared if this happens again.’”