What Will Happen if the Government Shuts Down?


CREDIT: Dinkytown, distributed under a CC-BY 3.0 license (Wikimedia Commons)

Unless Congress reaches an agreement by midnight on Monday (30 September), the U.S. government will go into shutdown mode and nonessential personnel at federal government institutions—that is, everyone not involved in animal care, patient care, national defense, or other functions deemed essential—will have an unplanned holiday. But then, if you work at a government facility, you knew that already.

How will a shutdown impact researchers who don't work for the government, but whose funding comes from federal sources like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH)?

If you have an existing NIH grant, you can continue spending from it—as long as you don't encounter any problems. NIH's payment management system will remain in service, but if a problem arises—if, for instance, an attempt to draw down an existing grant triggers an edit check or a drawdown limit control, "you will not be able to draw down funds," according to an NIH correspondence obtained by Science Careers, and no one will be available to help you solve that problem. Also, if your grant is restricted—i.e., because you haven't yet complied with NIH's new open-access requirements—no staff will be available to remove that restriction. Finally, if you need to contact a program officer for some reason, obviously you're out of luck.

If you have been planning to submit a proposal to NIH to meet one of the October deadlines—R01s, for example, are due on 7 October, and Career Development Awards a week later—you (or whoever is uploading your application) will need access to both Grants.gov and the NIH eRA Commons. Grants.gov will be open for business, but eRA Commons will be closed, so proposals uploaded to Grants.gov will be stored there, and will not be processed and validated until the shutdown ends. One thing that means is that errors in your application may not be caught until after the submission deadline; hopefully NIH will provide a grace period to fix them.

NSF isn't saying much yet about the potential shutdown. Their only announcement so far says that they will announce their plans on Monday. At NSF, too, grants are submitted via Grants.gov, which will remain open. But, once submitted, NSF grants must be routed through Fastlane—and Fastlane will be closed. While NIH is saying that payments may be delayed, NSF is saying that no payments will be made for the duration of the shutdown.

If you already submitted a grant to either agency, its processing and evaluation could be delayed. At NIH, some 60 study section meetings are scheduled for next week (including Monday 30 September, before the negotiating deadline) and—although I have received no official word—those meetings surely will be canceled if the federal government closes its doors. That could delay the review of Cycle 1 competition, the results of which are due to be announced in November. Any delay would also, very likely, affect the release of Cycle 1 funds.

In an e-mail to Science Careers, the head of a grants office (who preferred not to be named) looked beyond the current negotiations:

What's more frightening [than the threat of a government shutdown] is the pending debt ceiling negotiations. The last time there was an 11th hour deal on that, it resulted in the sequester. And if there isn't an 11th hour deal, and the U.S. is allowed to default, then we're in uncharted territory—grantee organizations and government contractors could be facing partial and/or delayed payments for costs that have already been incurred. And that's just limiting it to a parochial view of the immediate impact on government grants, broader economic implications aside.

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