Federally Funded Researchers Fear Shutdown Delays

As the US government shutdown enters its second day, scientists who rely on federal grants to continue their work and support their staffs and students express frustration. 

By | October 2, 2013

WIKIMEDIA, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURYIt’s tough enough to secure a highly competitive research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF) even when those agencies are fully funded and operations are running smoothly. But considering the twin specters of the government-wide sequestration—which squeezed budgets at federal agencies, including NIH and NSF—and yesterday’s government shutdown, scientists that depend on federal funding for their livelihoods and those of their employees are expressing concerns about their ability to continue their work in the near-to-mid term.

Michigan State University’s Robert Britton, an associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, told The Scientist that while his lab has to date been unscathed by both the federal budget sequester and shutdown, pending grant reviews are of particular concern to the group. “We have a grant that is currently awaiting review—the panel is scheduled to meet October 21,” he wrote in an e-mail. “So that will likely be delayed.” For one member of Britton’s lab, a significant delay in a funding decision “could force him to find a new job” sooner than he had planned to. True, this person would need to land another position were the grant not to get a fundable score anyway, but if it continues, the shutdown could throw a serious wrench in planning for his search.

Britton worries about the impacts that sequestration and the current government shutdown could have on the careers of junior scientists, more generally. “It used to be that if you had a good idea and a little preliminary data you could get a grant,” he said. “Now you have to publish multiple papers from your lab before you can be competitive. But what is even more challenging is keeping the morale of postdocs and students up for having a career in science.” Seeing their PIs struggle to get and maintain funding, students and postdocs are left to “wonder if there is any future for them,” he continued. “Funding has always been cyclical and hopefully will turn around soon, but it is getting harder to look people in the eye and tell them there will be a decent job waiting for them at the end of their training.”

Meanwhile, Timothy Girard, an assistant professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, is also anxiously waiting the shutdown out. He plans to submit a new R01 proposal to the NIH by the November 5 deadline, at a time when many applicants who had planned to submit by the end of this week (October 5) will likely also get their proposals in. NIH has advised applicants not to submit proposals while the agency is being affected by the shutdown. The National Science Foundation (NSF) issued similar guidance this week.

“Honestly, I am unsure how the shutdown will affect my research group and/or my institution,” Girard told The Scientist in an e-mail. His lab is currently supported by NIH funds. “Fortunately, the NIH is saying, ‘All work and activities performed under currently active NIH grant awards may continue,’” he said. But to his mind, the current situation is but a blip on the radar of the overall biomedical research funding crisis in the U.S.

“This shutdown is only one example of the many ways that current national challenges and the government policies those challenges are producing are affecting those of us working in biomedical research,” he said. “The bottom line is that, as much as I enjoy my work and believe strongly that it is benefiting hundreds of thousands of patients, is it becoming more and more difficult to be a biomedical researcher in this country.”

Britton echoed Girard’s disappointment with the government’s treatment of the scientific enterprise. “Between the sequester and government shutdown, this is having a real impact on how science is getting—or should I say not getting—done in this country,” he said. “The shortsightedness of how we are running our federal and state governments is pretty frustrating to watch.”

As the government shutdown continues, The Scientist will closely monitor its impacts on science. Follow the evolving #governmentshutdown situation on Facebook and Twitter and stay tuned to www.the-scientist.com for updates and analysis.

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