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Federal funding for U. research grinds to halt after government shutdown

The federal government remained shut down on Thursday, and University faculty and students reliant on federal funding began to feel the pinch of the budget standoff in Washington.

The shutdown was immediately felt at the Office of the Dean for Research, where the system for submitting and reviewing proposals for federal funding has effectively ground to a halt, Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti said. Federal agency investigators from the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes for Health who review funding proposals could no longer submit progress reports, he explained, and peer review panels could not meet to review the proposals. Government agencies’ support teams were no longer available to help researchers submit the proposals.

“The shutdown has lasted two, three days, so this has created considerable difficulties,” Debenedetti said. “It’s an unsustainable situation in the long term.”

While researchers who have already received federal grants this year can continue to use their awarded funds, federal agencies are no longer posting notices for new funding opportunities on their websites, he noted. The University’s Office of Research and Project Administration has made the guidelines issued by federal agencies regarding the shutdown available on its website, he said.

“I would say, like the rest of the citizenry at large, everyone’s hoping that the situation will be resolved soon,” Debenedetti said of faculty and students’ reaction to the shutdown. “The whole system for doing research depends on a functioning federal government, so we’re just hoping that this is a short-term situation.

Office of Government Affairs Director Joyce Rechtschaffen ’75 said Tuesday in an interview with The Daily Princetonian that her office had communicated with the Dean for Research about the consequences of the shutdown for federal funding and was actively monitoring the situation.

“The impact upon higher education and research right now in the short term is mild, but we don’t know what the impact will be in the long term,” Rechtschaffen said. “So we will be watching it, and we’ll just continue to do everything we can to keep the University up to date, to work on our strategies so if there’s a long-term solution to this whole crisis, including the debt and the shutdown and everything else, it includes strong robust funding for research and strong funding for financial aid for our students.”

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory would be vulnerable in the event of a prolonged government shutdown, as it receives almost all of its funding from federal sources. According to PPPL Director Stewart Prager, about 90 percent of the laboratory’s funding comes from the Department of Energy, while the rest comes from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation and private industry.

The shutdown has had no immediate effect on operations because the laboratory has about two months’ worth of reserve funds to support its staff and research, Prager said.

“We’re going full-blast,” he said. “The one caveat is we’re looking at how we can just tighten our belts, but other than some belt-tightening, cutting back on some discretionary expenses where we can, we’re fully open and fully operational.”

But a prolonged government shutdown could jeopardize a $94 million project to upgrade the PPPL’s major experiments, Prager explained. The PPPL is obligated to deliver the project to the Department of Energy on schedule and on cost, but a prolonged shutdown could dry up the funds necessary to complete the project in a timely fashion, he said.

Prager emphasized that the PPPL would take a cautious approach to spending because the budget for fiscal year 2014, which is already underway, is not yet known, and because it’s unclear when the government shutdown will end.

Professor of politics and public affairs Nolan McCarty said that the effect of a short-term shutdown on Princeton and other universities like it would probably not be noticeable for most faculty and students.

“Where it could be an issue is a much longer shutdown where rounds of proposal reviews are canceled or delayed, [or] grant monies are delayed for weeks or months,” McCarty said. “But a short-term shutdown is not really going to be felt, I don’t think, by most faculty members just because of the way the monies are disbursed.”

Because most University-affiliated students and visiting faculty requiring visas to study at the University had already begun the school year, McCarty said, slowed federal processing of visas would likely affect very few people on campus.

When asked whether there were any signs suggesting that Republicans and Democrats were working together to resolve the shutdown, McCarty said he had heard “rumblings” that moderate House Republicans might cooperate with Democrats to defeat further bills proposed by conservative Republicans and then vote together to pass a counter-proposal to end the government shutdown.

“Because there’s things in the works like that, that probably puts a little bit more pressure on leaders to actually find a deal,” McCarty said. “I actually don’t think the shutdown will last that much longer because it’s not really accomplishing anything for anybody. I worry a little bit more about the debt ceiling debate.”

He added that he thought the government shutdown might end next week.

U.S. Representative Rush Holt offered a gloomier assessment of the shutdown in a Tuesday interview with The Daily Princetonian, explaining that numerous federal services had already been affected and that hundreds of thousands of employees had been furloughed. He expressed pessimism about Congress’s ability to quickly end the shutdown and likened it to a hostage-taking situation.

“It’s not as if these were two equal sides engaged in a discussion of principle,” Holt said of Democrats and Republicans in the House. “No, this was just kind of a crazy suicide mission of a bunch of fanatics who first took the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives, took them over and then took the government hostage, and said, ‘You know, if you don’t change some laws that we don’t like, we’ll stop government operations.’”

Explaining that Congressmen traditionally try to build coalitions to advance their political interests, Holt rejected using a government shutdown as a political tactic to change previous legislation.

“That’s what has worked in this country for a couple of centuries,” Holt said. “I hope this doesn’t mean a growing instability or a long term unraveling of the will that’s necessary for a self-governing country.”

The federal government shut down at midnight on Tuesday after Congress failed to agree on the terms of a continuing resolution to fund federal agencies. Congressional disagreement revolved around the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which Republicans tried repeatedly to weaken by working related provisions into any bills that would fund the government, Politico reported. Meanwhile, the New Jersey Health Insurance Marketplace opened for business on Oct. 1 and the University sent out an email to all its student employees providing information about the marketplace on Sept. 27.

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