Science Agencies Grappling with Shutdown Aftermath

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Publication date: 
31 January 2019
Number: 
10

As science agencies reboot after the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, it is becoming clear that it will take them months to recover.

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NASA shutdown town hall

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine addresses employees at a town hall meeting on the shutdown.

(Image credit – NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Thousands of scientists returned to work this week following the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Several major science agencies were subject to the shutdown, forcing them to suspend all functions not deemed essential for a period that ultimately lasted 35 days. On Jan. 25, President Trump and Congress finally reached an agreement to fund the government for three weeks while they seek a resolution to their impasse over funding a wall along the southern U.S. border.

Agencies have now begun the long task of restarting research activities, making missed payments, rescheduling cancelled meetings, and reviewing a backlog of grant applications, among other matters requiring attention. Moreover, they must do so amid a cloud of uncertainty about what will happen when their current stopgap funding expires on Feb. 15.

It will likely take months for agencies to clear the backlog of work, and some reverberations from the shutdown could be felt for far longer.

Workforce impacts the foremost concern

Agencies’ most immediate priority is providing back pay to their employees. This applies both to those who continued to work during the shutdown because their positions were “excepted” and to the large numbers who were furloughed and forbidden from performing any work.

Roughly 90 percent of federal employees at NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology were furloughed. Meanwhile, about 50 percent of employees worked without pay at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, most of whom were within the National Weather Service, which was deemed essential to protecting life and property.

It is less clear how many contractors were sidelined by the shutdown and under what circumstances they will receive compensation. While Congress has mandated that civil servants will receive back pay, no such assurance has been made for contractors. Over 30 Democratic senators have cosponsored legislation that would provide back pay to low-wage contractors, but it is not yet apparent if the proposal will gain traction in the latest round of negotiations.

In general, contractors were able to continue working with pay during the shutdown if their activities had been forward funded and if they did not require access to federal facilities or input from program managers in the near term. This enabled major research centers such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NSF’s astronomical observatories to stay open. Other types of contractors, such as service workers, were immediately impacted.

The status of contractor pay was a major concern expressed at a town hall meeting that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine held on Jan. 29. “Is NASA working with lawmakers to pay CONTRACTORS for lost wages during the shutdown?” read one question that was submitted via an online system and received hundreds of upvotes.

Another question pertained to whether employees are allowed to support crowdfunding campaigns for contractors. One such campaign launched during the shutdown sought to raise money for NASA postdoctoral fellows whose program ran out of money in mid-January. (They were ultimately offered no-interest loans by the Universities Space Research Association, the organization that administers the program.) NASA officials noted that crowdfunding contributions could run afoul of ethics policies and encouraged those interested in making donations to consult previously issued guidance on the matter.

Other questions concerned the shutdown’s potential impacts on NASA’s ability to maintain its workforce over the long term. “What is being done to communicate to Congress and the White House the impact of prolonged shutdowns on talent retention?” read another online submission that was upvoted to near the top of the list.

Addressing the workforce impacts, Bridenstine acknowledged that some contractors would not be eligible for back pay and that some employees had left the agency because of the shutdown, though he said there has not been a “mass exodus.” He also stressed it will take a substantial amount of time for NASA to get back up to speed. “It is not a one-for-one delay. One day of shutdown does not equal one day of getting back into business,” he said.

Shutdown was set to spread far wider

Nicholas White, senior vice president for science at USRA, told FYI that NASA has committed to reimburse USRA for covering the stipends of postdoctoral fellows. He said USRA is also attempting to receive compensation for other contracts where employees were unable to work during the shutdown.

USRA was approaching a “tipping point” near the end of January, White said, coming close to furloughing about a quarter of its workforce. On the day the shutdown ended, it had just begun to furlough workers at the Lunar and Planetary Institute and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne telescope that was grounded during the shutdown.

Speaking of the shutdown’s overall effect, White added, “You’re going to see the ripple effects of this at least for the next six months to a year. It’s going to take us a long time to recover from this because deadlines have been missed, observations have been missed, and people’s lives have been affected.”

Many contractor-operated research facilities supported by NSF were also close to running out of funding. NSF estimated that these facilities would have had to go into “caretaker” status if the shutdown stretched well into February.

Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, told FYI that around 90 percent of its workers would have been furloughed had the shutdown extended past Feb. 20, with only a few activities deemed essential by NSF continuing. In particular, the Very Long Baseline Array would have still provided data about the Earth’s orientation to the Department of Defense, and NSF would not have furloughed local workers at its telescopes in Chile to avoid incurring steep fines under Chilean law.

Beasley stressed the dangers associated with potentially driving away observatory workers. “It takes us a long time to create situations in which we can get these highly trained people working in these remote observatories,” he said. “Our ability to backfill and reassemble the observatory staff after a couple months of shutdown and those people running off and getting other jobs — [that would] take us years to recover from.”

Large backlogs loom

Agencies have resumed disbursing funds, though they will face choices on what to prioritize.

NSF Director France Córdova said in a statement the agency will not be able to conduct “business as usual” because it is operating with stopgap spending. “We will start with the most pressing of issues, including processing the backlog of awards to universities and small businesses, rescheduling merit review panels that were cancelled, funding facilities and renewing oversight of those facilities, and funding graduate student and postdoctoral fellowships,” she explained.

NSF had to cancel over 100 grant review panels scheduled for January that together were set to review around 2,000 proposals. Some programs also temporarily lost funding: at least 250 postdoctoral fellows stopped receiving stipends from NSF during the shutdown. Although the agency’s flagship graduate research fellowship program was unaffected because universities paid fellows using previously disbursed funds, NSF had to delay its review of the 13,000 applications it received for next year’s cohort.

It will also be some time before agencies with large intramural research programs will get their experiments back up and running. Carl Williams, the acting director of NIST’s Physical Measurement Laboratory, explained to FYI that restarting laboratories with sophisticated equipment such as clean rooms is time consuming. Williams also noted the shutdown delayed NIST’s work to establish a Quantum Economic Development Consortium as part of the recently launched National Quantum Initiative.

“This is a worldwide competition to not only own the basic R&D, but to begin to build the foundation for future technologies that will result from quantum information science. And in that competitive environment, delays are costly,” he said.

Lawmakers look to stave off second shutdown

Congressional leaders met yesterday to formally begin negotiations on a compromise border security package. It is far from clear at the moment whether an agreement can be crafted that will satisfy all parties. President Trump is still insisting on a substantial down payment for a new border wall, while Democratic leaders have remained adamantly opposed to Trump's proposals. However, there appears to be little appetite in Congress for allowing another shutdown to occur.

Regardless of what happens between now and Feb. 15, the shutdown has already thrown a wrench into the budget process for the upcoming fiscal year. The president’s budget request is typically released in early February, but this year it will almost certainly be pushed back considerably. The White House Office of Management and Budget, which plays a central role in finalizing agencies' proposed budgets, had most of its workforce furloughed during the shutdown.

Research organizations have urged the White House and Congress to quickly wrap up the negotiations. Peter McPherson, the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said in a statement, “Although three weeks of funding is better than no funding at all, the U.S. research enterprise does not operate anywhere close to full strength when agencies are only guaranteed to be open three weeks at a time.”

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