U.S. federal science agencies that have been political bycatch in the brawl over a southern border wall are laboring now to get back on track after the recent 35-day government shutdown. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and other agencies are working to catch up on a backlog of projects while also looking over their shoulders out of concern that there could be another shutdown after a temporary 30-day funding bill expires on 15 February.
At NSF, the agency is in the process of evaluating the full damage from the shutdown while also working on prioritizing research proposals and meeting critical funding needs for staff, grantees, contractors, and others, NSF officials said during a 1 February telephone briefing to reporters.
They said that specific impacts to geoscience programs also are still being assessed, but that geoscience-related facilities and other research facilities funded by NSF and operated externally were sufficiently funded through the shutdown.
“We are trying to collect all of the impacts to the best that we can, associated with the [funding] lapse,” said Erwin Gianchandani, NSF’s assistant director for computer and information science and engineering. However, he added that “our primary focus this first week back has been on the resumption of our activities.”
Getting the Money out the Door
As of today, most if not all of the approximately 1,400 NSF staff have received their estimated retroactive pay after having missed two pay periods because of the shutdown, said Javier Inclán, NSF’s acting chief human capital officer.
One of the biggest impacts of the shutdown on NSF was the cancellation of more than 100 panels to review and fund research proposals. The agency currently is in the process of “working very aggressively to try to reschedule those panels,” some of which already have taken place this week, according to Gianchandani.
“It’s a pretty complex juggling act” to pull together the original panel of reviewers or other qualified experts who might be available in their place, Gianchandani said. “I do expect it’s going to take us several weeks and probably on the order of a couple of months or so to be able to have all the panels that were scheduled during the lapsed period completed this spring.”
Ensuring the Operation of Research Facilities
Most of the research facilities that NSF funds, and which are operated by nonprofit or other outside organizations, were able to continue operating during the shutdown, according to James Ulvestad, NSF’s chief officer for research facilities. Most of the facilities had funds obligated to them prior to the shutdown. “In some cases, they were funded for most of the year, but all were funded for up to about 2 months,” Ulvestad added. “So they were all able to continue operating during the lapse in appropriations.”
Ulvestad said that geosciences facilities “were among the ones that were sufficiently funded” to get through the shutdown period and into the middle of February. “We had no substantial issues with them,” he said.
With the possibility of another government shutdown later this month, Ulvestad said that the agency “will be working to obligate sufficient funds out to our facilities so that they can continue to operate even in the unfortunate event of another lapse.”
Polar Programs Weather the Storm
Ulvestad added that funds for Antarctic operations also are obligated well in advance and that there were no significant issues related to those operations during the shutdown.
Gianchandani said there were similarly no significant glitches related to another polar priority: the planning related to the Navigating the New Arctic initiative to better understand rapid change in the region, which is one of the agency’s 10 Big Ideas for future investment. “For the other big ideas, there were varying forms of impact,” he said. “But we have already had conversations and believe that we are still on track to be able to execute on the big ideas as we had planned this fiscal year.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer