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Shutdown Poses Research Challenges For Some Harvard Faculty

The partial government shutdown, now entering its fifth week, has prevented some Harvard researchers from renewing grants for research funding.
The partial government shutdown, now entering its fifth week, has prevented some Harvard researchers from renewing grants for research funding. By Caroline S. Engelmayer
By Jonah S. Berger and Molly C. McCafferty, Crimson Staff Writers

Funding lapses and restricted access to collaborators and resources — consequences of the longest government shutdown in United States history — have left some Harvard faculty members’ research projects mired in uncertainty, though most remain insulated from the shutdown’s effects for now.

The shutdown — which began in late December when national legislators could not resolve a dispute over funding for a proposed border wall — has left more than 800,000 federal employees either furloughed or forced to work without pay. Some government agencies and programs, though, received funding before the shutdown and are not impacted.

Both the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense — which together provided roughly 81 percent of the $613 million in federal funding that Harvard received in 2017 — are among the agencies that remain open, sparing many researchers across the University from interruptions to their work.

Still, some Harvard researchers have not completely avoided the shutdown’s effects.

Jonathan R. Thompson, a senior ecologist at the Harvard Forest who is currently conducting climate change research, said the partial shutdown has prevented him from renewing a long-term research grant from the National Science Foundation — money used to pay staffers’ salaries and keep the lights on in his lab. The shutdown has also halted “rapid” and “supplemental” grants that the Forest uses to fund short-term, time-sensitive research projects and educational ventures, according to Thompson.

“The cost and inefficiencies associated with this are just stunning,” Thompson said. “I understand that people are insecure about where they get their food, so I feel a little bit like I shouldn't be complaining because I can't write my papers and I can't submit my proposals, but it's just, at all levels it's absurd.”

To prevent any gaps in data collection, Thompson’s lab has established an “at-risk” account with the University’s Office for Sponsored Programs to temporarily replace the long-term grant — a setup Thompson described as a loan Harvard researchers can take out from their department if they expect to receive a grant in the near future. Ordinarily, at-risk accounts can remain open for a maximum of 120 days.

“This is a bit uncertain, and I imagine the University is getting quite a lot of requests for this,” Thompson said. “The department assumes the liability if the worst were to happen and it weren't reopened, or the grant were to be cancelled, or something like that.”

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on the shutdown’s impact on researchers.

In total, approximately 9 percent of Harvard’s federal funding came from the NSF in 2017. No new funding opportunities will be available until the shutdown concludes, according to the NSF’s website.

Faculty who plan to request new grants from NSF face similar uncertainty. Human Evolutionary Biology professor Daniel E. Lieberman wrote in an email that he nonetheless plans to submit a grant application to NSF this week.

“Who knows if it will be processed let alone funded?” he wrote.

But gaps in funding are not researchers’ only concerns. Harvard faculty often collaborate on research projects with federal scientists — many of whom are legally prohibited from working on ongoing projects or even checking their emails during the shutdown, according to Thompson.

“They're just not allowed to email anymore, and they're not allowed to participate,” Thompson said. “A lot of research, and papers, and work is just stalled right now.”

Nonetheless, Harvard Forest Senior Ecologist Neil Pederson said some federal scientists have switched email addresses in order to continue working under the radar, despite not receiving pay.

The shutdown has also affected researchers' ability to access information normally available on government websites.

Jacob Barandes, co-director of Graduate Studies for Physics, wrote in an email that thesis writers could not access online databases on the National Institute of Standards and Technology website, which at least one student “needed” for his work.

Pederson said he faces similar challenges as some of the public datasets he and his colleagues use for teaching and research are inaccessible during the shutdown. Data from the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — among others — are currently unavailable online “due to a lapse in appropriation,” according to the agencies’ websites.

Researchers across the University said they worry about further adverse effects on their work if the shutdown continues to drag on.

“Beyond general uncertainty on everything from permits to grants, it hasn’t had too strong an effect yet,” Lieberman wrote. “But that will surely change if it continues.”

He noted that standard interactions with government agencies — such as receiving permits to import specimens — could be disrupted.

“We are in uncharte[d] territory,” he wrote.

CORRECTION: Jan. 19, 2019

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Harvard received $613 billion in federal research funding in 2017. In fact, the University received $613 million.

— Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mollmccaff.

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