MU research feels effects of government shutdown

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 | 8:57 p.m. CDT; updated 6:47 a.m. CDT, Thursday, October 10, 2013

COLUMBIA – Every workday since the government shut down Oct. 1, an estimated $1 million in new federal award opportunities and starts at MU are delayed.

Robert Duncan, vice chancellor of research, estimated this number because MU received more than $253 million in new federal awards during the 2012 fiscal year. Broken down, it means MU spends slightly less than $1 million of federal funds each workday on research and research-related activities, he said.

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Duncan said he hopes these delayed opportunities will come through once the government opens back up, but as the shutdown stretches on, the chances of getting caught up on awards becomes less and less likely.

"If the government shutdown extends indefinitely, the pipeline of new funding opportunities will be interrupted, and these missed opportunities will probably never come back," Duncan said in an email.

Duncan and other associate deans of research in various MU colleges agree that the longer the government is closed, the larger the negative impact will be. However, no one is certain of the specific long-term effects.

So far, MU research is seeing several effects from the shutdown: 

Delayed grant proposal applications

Marc Linit, associate dean for research and Extension in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, said federal websites used for grant applications and renewals are temporarily out of operation. Federal employees who process the grant proposals are furloughed, causing uncertainty about the future of research programs.

Duncan said delayed research "badly impacts our ability to advance knowledge and discovery across all disciplines."

Expiration of research funding

If the shutdown lasts for a month or longer, current grants could expire and not be renewed, Linit said.

"Research projects could be caught in a disruption in the flow of money," Linit said.

Because grants have unique application and renewal dates, they operate on their own schedules. If all grants' application dates were spread evenly throughout the year, Linit estimated 1/12 of them would expire within this month, though the exact number that could expire isn't certain.

Until federal funding is restored, MU will make sure salaries funded by grants will be paid, MU spokesman Christian Basi said.

"We are working with departments with any individual who would be normally paid by a grant," Basi said. "Should money not be available for anyone paid through grant funds, we are looking for alternative sources for that money."

Basi said MU is planning on the federal government reimbursing MU's efforts to pay anyone who depends on grants.

"We have received several notices from our federal funding agencies that we are to continue with business as usual as it relates to our scientific research grants," Basi said.

Adjunct faculty furloughed

Linit said three Department of Agriculture labs have closed on campus, furloughing employees, some of whom are adjunct faculty, and removing access to materials and equipment that both students and researchers use for agricultural research.

Claire Baffaut is a federal employee who has been furloughed since the government shut down. She works as an Agricultural Research Service researcher and as an adjunct professor in the MU Department of Soil, Environmental and Atmospheric Sciences.

She was working on a research project that connects Missouri farming techniques to environmental effects in the Gulf of Mexico. Four other scientists and four to six undergraduate students also worked on the project. Since the shutdown, the project has stopped because the scientists have been furloughed, and the students cannot work without advisers.

Furloughed adjunct faculty cannot be replaced by MU in the meantime because of a lack of resources, Linit said.

Research affected

The project Baffaut is working on will not only be delayed, but also the data for her research will be affected.

Since Baffaut and her team were furloughed, they haven’t been able to collect data from bottles of stream water waiting to be analyzed.

"It definitely decreases the quality of that data set," Baffaut said. "It puts into question the data that we have because we are missing some. It increases the uncertainty and decreases the reliability of the data set."

Baffaut's research is on a timeline as well. If fields are harvested before the government shutdown is over, the conditions of the fields are different from what the experiment calls for.

"The more we wait, the more events we miss," Baffaut said.

Student research delayed

Thomas Larsen, a senior at MU, said research for his honors thesis has been challenging since the shutdown. As a double major in geography and anthropology, he is concerned about getting his degrees finished on time.

His honors thesis requires data from national websites that were shut down along with the federal government. In addition, his geographic information science class was let out early because information was not available for the course's assignments.

"My future as an undergrad student is getting a little more difficult," Larsen said.

Short-term and long-term effects

Noah Manring, interim associate dean for research at the MU College of Engineering, said there is not much to worry about in the short term.

Because the government has only been shut down for just over a week, Manring has yet to see significant changes to research at the College of Engineering. He said the sequestration issue has had more of a negative effect on research than the government shutdown.

Sequestration refers to automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that were put into effect on March 1 because of the government's inability to produce legislation to decrease the deficit. It caused the amount of federally granted awards at MU to be at a five-year low in 2012, because federal agencies braced themselves for the cuts one year ahead of time. In 2012, the amount of federally granted awards rang in at roughly $112 million, down from $120 million in 2011, according to a 2011-12 report by the MU Office of Research.

While the long-term effects seem harmful to the future of MU research, many of those potential effects wouldn't kick in unless the government is shut down for a month. Linit and Manring both cited this specific period of time as the point at which harsher consequences could start to occur.

"If the shutdown ends tomorrow, then this is of no great concern," Duncan said. "But if it drags on, then it is difficult to know how bad it may become."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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