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Furloughed federal workers who protested the shutdown earlier this month in Washington, D.C., will be going back to work, for at least 3 weeks.

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End of U.S. shutdown won’t mean return to business as usual for research agencies

The longest U.S. government shutdown in history may soon be over, at least temporarily. But researchers shouldn’t expect their favorite federal research agency to be back to normal anytime soon.

“Scientists will need to be patient,” warns Sarah Nusser, vice president for research at Iowa State University in Ames. “You’re not going to get all your questions answered immediately.”

President Donald Trump’s announcement this afternoon that he would accept a 3-week extension of current funding levels for several departments and agencies will allow them to reopen on Monday, and Congress appears ready to act at once. The agencies that conduct or fund research that have been mostly closed since 22 December 2018 include NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Once their doors are open, however, there will be a staggering amount of work waiting to be done. And that will require triage, says David Conover, vice president of research at the University of Oregon in Eugene and a former ocean division director at NSF.

“The first thing they’ll probably want to do is address what didn’t happen during the shutdown,” he says. At NSF, a $7.6 billion agency with no in-house research operations, that will mean processing routine award transactions that were frozen, resuming conversations with scientists with questions about both current awards as well as upcoming competitions, and rescheduling more than 100 review panels—involving 2000 proposals—that were scrubbed during the shutdown.

At other agencies, early tasks could include reopening shuttered websites that provide publicly available data and restarting research projects that paused midstream.

Taking such immediate steps should ease some of the anxiety that has built up in the scientific community about the status of their research. The uncertainty was especially painful for those with time-sensitive studies that had been approved by funding agencies, but for which the money had not been made available. Also breathing easier: graduate students and postdocs waiting to be put on federally funded grants awarded to their mentors.

But what Conover calls “clearing the decks” is only the first—and in many ways the easiest—step. “What’s going to be more challenging is looking ahead to all the pending actions,” he says. At NSF’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, that list includes making decisions on new awards, scheduling panel meetings to review the next tranche of proposals, and fleshing out plans for new initiatives. All that stopped during the shutdown, he emphasizes, and it can’t simply be turned back on along with the lights.

“Nobody has looked at any of that stuff,” he says about the pileup of electronic submissions and other communications with the agency. “And NSF may want to wait a while to see what happens in Congress before they think about rescheduling everything, because they could be shut down again.”

To avoid that second shutdown, Congress and Trump must strike a deal on the president’s demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall. That issue triggered the current shutdown, and the Democrats now in control of the U.S. House of Representatives have so far refused to negotiate until shuttered agencies were given funding to continue normal operations. If no deal is reached by 15 February, those agencies will once again run out of money.

Nusser hopes NSF and other agencies put “people first” as they resume grantmaking operations. But that will still leave a lot of unfinished business.

“I don’t know if we should expect to see very much happen in the next 3 weeks,” she says. Federal employees, she notes, “have been through a pretty difficult situation, and I can imagine they are pretty demoralized.”

Research and university groups reacted to today’s developments with guarded optimism. “We are pleased that the White House and Congress reached an agreement to reopen federal agencies and urge all parties to ensure we won’t be right back in this same situation in three weeks,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) in Washington, D.C., 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.”

APLU also urged legislators to pass spending bills that would provide previously proposed increases for research agencies, rather than freeze their 2019 budgets at 2018 levels.