As the federal government shutdown progresses toward the end of its second week, the effects are starting to trickle down from Washington to Blacksburg.
Though much of the shutdown debacle has focused on the estimated 800,000 “non-essential” federal government employees furloughed during the shutdown, Virginia Tech research is feeling some effects of the shutdown, too.
“We’re fortunate because most of the existing federal grants and contracts are not affected because they were funded in fiscal year 2013,” said John Pastor, communications director for Virginia Tech’s Office of the Vice President for Research. “It really impacts the annual renewing grants and contracts which come up on an annual basis.”
The shutdown, resulting from Congress being unable to pass an appropriations bill to fund the federal government, has forced certain government agencies — such as the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation, both big funders of Tech research — to close temporarily.
However, the shutdown has only had a minimal effect on current research, Pastor said, due to much of the fund having already been renewed during last fiscal year.
“The effects are not a knockout punch to us,” Pastor said. “We have a lot of work going on that will continue to go on. The shutdown is a temporary condition; it won’t last forever. No one knows how long it will last, but it is temporary.”
In addition to research funding, the shutdown has also caused certain online databases, such as those on the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institutions’ websites, to be inaccessible or difficult to access.
“It makes it a lot harder for students and faculty to get their work done,” Pastor said.
Paul Decker, a senior natural resources conservation major, was not able to complete an assignment for his forest soils and hydrology class.
“The Natural Resources Conservation Service Web Soil Survey was closed,” Decker said. “No access to soil surveys and characteristics was open.”
To resolve this, Democrats and Republicans must reach an agreement on an appropriations bill to fund the government.
Negotiations between Democrats and Republicans in Washington continued Thursday, as President Obama reached out to House Republicans and Senate Democrats to discuss ending the shutdown. In addition, both the House and the Senate are in session Saturday to continue negotiations, inching closer to the deadline at which the federal government will reach its “debt ceiling,” the point at which the federal government defaults on its already existing debt.
And as the government shutdown continues, Tech’s future research projects will likely be hindered.
“If someone has a great idea to capture greenhouse gases to slow down global climate change, or a way to supply clean water to an impoverished town, or an idea for a new drug that can help cancer patients — and Virginia Tech researchers are involved with these kinds of things — that affects the people at home,” Pastor said.
As government workers are furloughed, many of the renewing grants and contracts are unable to be renewed because government employees aren’t in their offices. In addition, funding for new projects has been cut off by government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, which is currently not issuing any new grants or cooperative agreements.
However, funding for research is continuing to flow from business and industry sources, giving Tech some access to funding for research.
“We are not totally reliant on the federal government,” Pastor said. “But it is very, very, very important to us.”