Many U.S. government scientists and federally funded researchers breathed a sigh of relief last month, after the partial shutdown of the U.S. government began. That’s because the budget impasse between Congress and President Donald Trump didn’t affect some of the largest federal research agencies, including the $39 billion National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the $35.6 billion Department of Energy (DOE). Their spending had already been approved.
This week, however, it became clear that the shutdown is hampering even agencies that are open—sometimes in unexpected ways.
At NIH, for example, officials have been scrambling to comply with a rule that requires them to publish notice of upcoming proposal review meetings in the Federal Register, the public notice publication for federal agencies. But the agency that publishes the Federal Register is closed, threatening NIH’s grantmaking process.
At DOE, managers are reportedly telling some employees to cancel travel because of the shutdown, even though the department is fully funded. The reports have prompted members of Congress to ask DOE to explain.
Meanwhile, the shutdown also continues to wreak havoc at agencies such as NASA that are mostly closed. Yesterday, 181 postdoctoral fellows working at five NASA research centers were placed on leave after their funding dried up.
Here are more details on this trio of shutdown stories:
NIH reschedules panel meetings
NIH, which was closed during the last shutdown, hasn’t been spared entirely this time around. The agency has already had to reschedule at least three peer-review panels and is scrambling to avoid moving others because of its Federal Register problem.
Typically, NIH study sections, or peer-review panels, must publish a notice of an upcoming meeting at least 15 days in advance. Because the Office of the Federal Register is shut down (it is part of the National Archives and Records Administration, an independent agency), it is only publishing certain documents.
According to an 11 January notice, funded agencies that want to post something must certify in a “special handling letter” that a delay “would prevent or significantly damage the execution of funded functions at the agency.” That does not include “documents related to normal or routine activities.”
Although study sections would appear to be part of NIH’s routine operations, an agency spokesperson says it has gotten one letter approved for a meeting set for 31 January and is awaiting word on others. But the agency has also moved an environmental science panel set for 8 January to late February and indefinitely postponed two clinical study panels set for 11 and 15 January.
That may not be a complete count. Neurobiologist John Foxe of the University of Rochester in New York took to Twitter to lament a 1-month delay of a panel he serves on, commenting: “This thing is beginning to bite hard into the work of your nation’s scientists folks. … What utter foolishness!” Another researcher was told this week that his panel would be moved if the shutdown lasts another 1–2 weeks, then got another email saying NIH hoped “new procedures” would allow the agency to stay on track.
Many of the councils for NIH’s institutes and centers, which make the final decisions about grants, also meet in January and February. But those notices were submitted to the Federal Register before the shutdown, so the meetings can take place, NIH says.
Many more study section meetings scheduled for late January and February could now be in limbo. NIH officials are hoping to negotiate a blanket approval, arguing that the meetings are critical to its operations. “We’re trying to resolve this issue,” an NIH spokesperson says. —Jocelyn Kaiser
DOE’s mysterious travel ban
On 10 January, Greenwire reported that DOE officials told workers within two programs—the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy—to cancel travel because of the shutdown. Yesterday, that report prompted Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the chair of the House of Representatives science panel, to ask Energy Secretary Rick Perry for an explanation.
“DOE is not impacted by the shutdown and based on the information available to me thus far, these travel restrictions seem arbitrary and capricious,” she wrote in a letter to Perry. “I sincerely hope that these reports are inaccurate,” she added, asking for answers by 25 January. —David Malakoff
NASA postdocs on leave, but can get loans
On 16 January, a NASA contractor—the nonprofit Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in Columbia, Maryland—notified the 181 postdoctoral fellows it funds at five NASA research centers that they had to go on unpaid leave. That’s because NASA, which has been shuttered since 22 December 2018, can’t make the payments to USRA that it needs to run the $18-million-a-year postdoctoral program.
Although the fellows can’t do any science, USRA is offering them interest-free loans to help them pay their bills this month, says Nicholas White, the group’s senior vice president for science. The stipends start at $60,000 and can exceed $80,000 for those living in high-cost locations, and the loans will fill the gap caused by losing 2 weeks’ pay. USRA has borrowed $500,000 to cover the January payments, White says, and expects that its costs could top $1 million if the shutdown extends through February.
“We recognized that we needed to help out and that postdocs don’t have a lot of money,” White says. The loans are optional, he says, and USRA hopes NASA will agree to reimburse the organization once the shutdown ends. The fellows would be allowed to tack on any lost days at the end of their fellowships, which run for 2 years and sometimes are extended for a third year.
The 79 foreign fellows in the group are facing a double whammy, White noted. They enter the United States on a J1 visa, which prohibits them from filing for unemployment and from taking another job while on leave.
Some foreign fellows were initially concerned that being put on leave would invalidate the terms of their visa and require them to go home. But the Department of State has said the fellows retain their status so long as they are not destitute, according to White. Toward that end, USRA is also paying for health insurance while the fellows are shut out of their labs. —Jeffrey Mervis