By SUSAN JONES
The partial federal government shutdown, precipitated by a dispute between Congress and President Trump over funding for a southern border wall, is in its 20th day, but on Pitt’s campuses it’s really just in day four.
Because the shutdown hit just as Pitt was heading into the holiday break, and many of the University’s top researchers weren’t fully back on the job until this past Monday, the impact of the shutdown still is unclear on campus.
“The National Institutes of Health, the University’s largest source of federal dollars, remains funded, so we are not seeing an impact on that end,” Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research, said in a statement. “And the National Science Foundation, though it is not funded, is still accepting applications in accordance with its published deadlines. … The shutdown started around the time the University was on winter break, so as we are now gearing up in the new semester, we’ll continue to monitor and evaluate any additional and future impacts of the shutdown.”
Pitt received more than $16 million in research grants for 82 projects from the National Science Foundation in 2018.
If you want to know how a shutdown works, there might be no better person to ask than Geovette Washington, senior vice chancellor and chief legal officer for Pitt.
Prior to coming to Pitt, Washington was the general counsel for the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In that position, she was the one who, during the 2013 government shutdown, made the final call on who could and could not work, “who was accepted under the law and not, and so for 17 days, that was my life,” Washington said.
Because the 2013 shutdown happened at the very beginning of the federal fiscal year on Oct. 1, no agencies had received any funding. The current shutdown started on Dec. 21, and many agencies — including the NIH, Department of Defense and Department of Educations — were already funded through separate appropriations bills and remain functioning.
But agencies that had been operating under a continuing resolution since the beginning of the fiscal year were essentially shut down after Dec. 21. These include agencies that provide significant research dollars to universities, including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
During the shutdown, those in unfunded agencies cannot work, under the Antideficiency Act, unless their work is determined to protect “life and property,” according to Washington. And who is needed to protect life and property may change as the shutdown continues. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration is currently not doing routine food inspections of seafood, fruits, vegetables and more, but Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the agency’s commissioner, said he is looking at bringing back 150 inspectors who were furloughed because of the shutdown, according to the New York Times.
At Pitt, Washington said, the impact on researchers would likely be more in the day to day reporting of data to a federal funding agency.
“Whether or not there was new monies for a new thing would have been impacted months ago,” she said. “So we're not really talking about ‘Did you get a big chunk of money.’ Probably this is probably more in the realm of, ‘I need to submit data in order to get a next approval to do X, or I needed permissions, or I needed to change something in some way.’ ”
One impact at Pitt could be a delay in grant applications to the agencies that are shut down, “because nobody should be there working,” Washington said. Some of these grants may have been delayed since Oct. 1. Under the continuing resolution, appropriations are supposed remain the same as the previous fiscal year, so new projects are usually not funded.
Another delay could come because there is no one working to make grant decisions or write the checks. For instance, if the NSF put out a call for grant applications that were due in November and the awards were to be announced in January, then that hasn’t happened. The funds are there and will be awarded after NSF goes back to work.
But, so far, Washington and other Pitt officials have not heard about any grant problems on campus.
The other area on campus that the shutdown could impact is students seeking immigration status or other information from the Department of Homeland Security, but Washington said they haven’t had any complaints yet. “So I assume all of our kids got back into the country just fine (after the break),” she said.
As the shutdown continues to linger, Washington said, there could be other problems that Pitt’s administration can’t even imagine right now. The Office of Research's Rutenbar and Chief Financial Officer Hari Sastry will continue to monitor the situation closely.
If faculty, staff or students encounter problems related to the shutdown, they should contact their dean or director, or for research issues, they can contact the Office of Research.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-648-4294.