NSF science research funds are flowing again after the shutdown

The U.S. agency says it will take time to assess the government shutdown’s impact on science

air pollution

HAZY HORIZON  Now that the U.S. government shutdown is over, the National Science Foundation has reopened its coffers to researchers, like those who study air pollution.

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The U.S. agency in charge of funding everything from hurricane research to exploring Mars is back to business now that the longest government shutdown in history has ended. But it isn’t quite business as usual.

The National Science Foundation’s first priority is to ensure scientists already approved for funding receive their promised grants, starting with $220 million in requests received on the first day back to work January 28. The agency’s daily requests typically total about $20 million, said Erwin Gianchandani, a deputy assistant director at NSF, in a February 1 news conference.

NSF also has to work through a backlog of review panels and new research proposals, a process that could take several more weeks if not months (SN Online: 1/12/19).

“It’s hard to quantify in terms of dollars” how much the shutdown cost scientists in lost time, says air quality researcher Albert Presto, of the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “But losing a month really hurts, especially for people who are working on things that are time sensitive or who are just getting started.”

Presto was lucky, though. Just before the shutdown began on December 22, a review panel had recommended that the NSF finance Presto’s research into how volatile organic compounds from consumer products like shampoo or laundry detergent break down and pollute the atmosphere (SN: 3/17/18, p. 12). Because that recommendation was already through, Presto was among scientists who have had their projects approved this year.  

Should politicians fail to approve a budget beyond February 15, the government could shutter again. NSF is “meeting on a daily basis to prepare for the possibility,” said Javier Inclán, the agency’s acting chief human capital officer.

Scientists warn that a second shutdown could cause other types of problems, such as a loss of confidence by young researchers. “These are our most vulnerable people in the science pipeline, which is already so leaky,” says Kevin Smith, a conservation ecologist at Davidson College in North Carolina.

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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