Research engine in the Triangle sputters during shutdown

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 10, 2013 

Deanna Osmond, a soil scientist at N.C. State University, recently got the good news she’d been hoping for: a $450,750 research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Her project is a three-year test of a tool that may help corn farmers adjust nitrogen fertilizer levels during the growing season, rather than guessing at the right amount. The research has practical implications for corn yields in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Then came the bad news: Because of the partial shutdown of the federal government, Osmond was told that her team can’t get the money or start the research. The clock is ticking to launch the study in time for the next corn growing season.

“It’s going to slow us down, and it may be an inconvenience,” she said. “And it may set the project back for a whole year.”

Federal dollars fuel the research that drives this region, so when the U.S. government closes for business, people in the Triangle tend to get a little nervous. When the shutdown goes beyond a week, the jitters grow.

For the most part, research has carried on since the shutdown began. The vast majority of medical research at Triangle universities is funded by the National Institutes of Health, which has an automated system for drawing down grant money. Most other agencies don’t, which means universities have to dig into reserves to cover costs.

“The institutions are more or less backstopping the money that we spend, on the good faith of the government that when the money returns they’ll pay us all that we spent,” said Jim Siedow, vice provost for research at Duke University, which has nearly $1 billion a year in research expenditures. “As that goes on, you worry a little bit about – how much money do we want to expose?”

A small number of federally funded employees at universities have been sent home. Researchers have stopped submitting grant proposals to the federal agencies. No new grants are being awarded, and no grant program managers are answering the phones at the big agencies.

At NCSU, 25 grants worth nearly $6 million were awarded just as the shutdown happened and have been frozen. No work can begin on studies on topics such as renewable energy, cartilage repair, child nutrition, camouflage fabric and artificial limbs.

‘Can only go so far’

Public universities, already dealing with state budget cuts, will have a hard time covering the non-NIH-funded projects that are up and running.

“We’re still supporting those folks, but we’re not getting reimbursed, so we we can only go so far on all of our grants if this keeps going for too long,” said Terri Lomax, vice chancellor for research, innovation and economic development.

People whose careers depend on the federal dime were already feeling uneasy, she said. “Sequestration was already hurting us badly enough,” Lomax said.

Student federal aid, which is funded in advance, does not seem to be a problem on campuses. Visas for international students have come through because those are paid for by fees. But international graduate students and researchers on H1-B visas may face difficulty because those are processed by the shuttered U.S. Department of Labor. If universities run out of money to cover the work by those on H1-B visas, then those students may have to be sent back to their home countries.

Investigation on hold

There are other consequences, as well. A federal investigation into UNC-Chapel Hill’s handling and reporting of sexual assault cases, for example, is hold. Annie Clark, a UNC-CH graduate and complainant on the case, said she contacted the U.S. Department of Education to inquire about the investigation, only to get an automated reply that the agency was closed.

Universities and companies have had to get creative to keep federally funded employees on the job.

At RTI International, the Research Triangle Park-based nonprofit research institute, a small percentage of federally funded projects have been stopped, according to a statement by Wayne Holden, president and CEO. Holden said in same cases RTI has reassigned employees from halted contracts to others that are still running. “As we assess each situation and plan our actions, the continued welfare of our staff members is foremost in our minds,” Holden’s statement said.

And while NIH money is flowing, there are fears that it could stop at any time. If the government’s automated disbursement system were to crash, for example, there would be no information technology employees to fix it, Siedow said.

Stressful and confusing

Barbara Entwisle, vice chancellor for research at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the shutdown presents a huge management challenge.

“It’s disruptive, it really is,” she said. “It’s created a lot of additional work. It’s stressful for employees and at times it’s confusing as we’re trying to understand the directives that we’re being given and comply with them.”

When the shutdown began, most people weren’t worried. Now, after the 10-day mark and as the debt ceiling negotiation looms, those who work in the research enterprise are feeling weary.

“With so much of the federal situation over the last year, uncertainty is as much a problem as any other aspect of it,” Entwisle said. “This is no way to run a business. Shutting down the government is not a strategy. It’s the lack of one.”

Osmond, the NCSU scientist, just wants to get going on her new project, which in the long run may save corn farmers money, improve their yields and lessen the impact on the environment.

“Most of us are hoping against hope that it will be resolved within a week or two, as well as the debt ceiling,” she said. “If it goes longer than that or we default, I think many of us are looking at a crisis in our research programs.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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