Researchers at MSU, elsewhere fear government shutdown

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As Congress races toward another possible government shutdown on Thursday, researchers who rely on government grants and facilities fear debilitating consequences to their work.

January’s three-day shutdown provided a taste of what could come, but students and faculty at Michigan State University and across the nation fear the consequences of a lengthier shutdown.

“Long term, if the shutdown were to extend, or if we were to have another one, I wouldn’t be able to get my data,” said Elizabeth Lane, an MSU graduate student in the political science department. “I have a year left to collect the rest.”

Lane relies on Supreme Court bench memos to write her dissertation. These documents are not available digitally and are found exclusively at the Library of Congress, a federal building that closes its doors when the government shuts down.

As a fifth-year doctoral student, time is an important factor in Lane’s research. Her funding runs out in a year. Some researchers might be able to wait through a shutdown, but Lane fears a longer shutdown could substantially delay her data collection and ultimately hamper her ability to finish a high-quality dissertation on time.  

“It slows down the process,” Lane said.

The impact on the research of Lane and other academics has wide-reaching repercussions. Lane analyzes the data in East Lansing, Michigan, and hires Anna Schroeder, a student at George Washington University, to do the data collection at the Library of Congress in Washington.  

Schroeder spends a few days per week taking photos of the Supreme Court bench memos for Lane’s research. She said the three-day shutdown already put her behind schedule.

“I take around 2,000 photos per day,” Schroeder said. “Every day the government is shut down, I have to make that up somehow.”  

A shutdown of a week or longer would make it very challenging to catch up on data collection given all her other responsibilities as a student, she said. Schroeder fears she would need to eliminate much of her personal time to make up what she could not finish during a shutdown.

The shutdown also plays a role in the way the National Science Foundation (NSF) processes grant applications. Many researchers rely on such grants to finish graduate school.

Processes at the NSF take a hit during a shutdown, especially if it is lengthy, said Rachel Croson, the dean of the MSU College of Social Science. Crosson served for two years as director of the agency’s Division of Social and Economic Sciences.

“Everybody stays home,” Croson said. “Shutdowns result in a slowing down of grants being evaluated and grants being awarded.”

They generally do not result in a reduction of grants, she said. However, if the budget impasse in Congress ends in a cut to the NSF budget, the agency could greatly reduce future grant amounts and even rescind prior commitments.  

For a graduate student like Lane, the prospect of a large budget cut could be catastrophic.

Productivity was lost during even the short, three-day shutdown, Croson said.  

“If staff is traveling, they need to return to their homes immediately so they can’t continue on federally-funded travel,” said Croson. “A big part of the NSF as well is running panels of scientific experts to evaluate the grant proposals and make recommendations. If a shutdown is looming, those panels might be rescheduled or delayed.”

Even in a three-day shutdown, money is spent flying staff back from overseas and flying them back when the government reopens. In addition, preparing for a shutdown also expends resources at an administrative level.  

For Croson, a shutdown punishes those who give their lives to science.

“During my time at the NSF, I was incredibly impressed by how lean an organization it is,” she said. “Everybody lives the philosophy that the funding they receive should be earmarked and dedicated toward science, not toward making their lives easier and nicer. I was so impressed by the dedication of all the staff to the mission of the organization.”