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Here’s how the government shutdown is affecting research at Northeastern

A general view of the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex as the sun shines through a window in the ceiling on Feb. 15, 2017. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

As the United States enters the third week of a partial government shutdown, federally funded research at Northeastern University is so far “minimally affected” and continuing as usual, according to David Luzzi, senior vice provost for research at the university.

“The impact here is minimal and less than in previous shutdowns,” said Luzzi, who is also vice president of the innovation campus at Burlington, Massachusetts.

The country is in the midst of a partial government shutdown that hinges on President Donald J. Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to fund a wall at the country’s southern border. As a stalemate between Congress and the president continues, Trump has considered using national emergency powers to declare a crisis at the border in order to build a wall without the approval of lawmakers.

Nine federal departments will remain unfunded until the government passes a new budget: the Treasury, and the departments of Agriculture, Homeland Security, the Interior, State, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Commerce, and Justice.

This means that grants and other research funding from these departments are also on hold.

Luzzi said that roughly 80 percent of Northeastern’s research funding comes from federal agencies. The vast majority of the funding comes from the Department of Defense,  the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.

Much of the work at Northeastern’s Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security is funded by grants from the Department of Defense, Luzzi said. The institute, which is based in Burlington, focuses on forming partnerships with leaders in industry, government, and academia to solve grand challenges in national security.

Of the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation, only the National Science Foundation is unfunded because of the shutdown. But the National Science Foundation issued a statement saying that it will allow researchers who have grants from the government agency to continue the work they started. The National Science Foundation also announced that the shutdown will not affect the deadlines to submit grant proposals.

Northeastern University Research Enterprise Services, the group that oversees and manages research activities at Northeastern, will front the budgets of any award that’s already been secured but for which the dispensing of funds is on hold because of the shutdown. The government will then reimburse the university once the government is up and running again, Luzzi said.

Northeastern’s government relations team has urged members of Congress and their staff to end the partial government shutdown. They have also met with higher education groups to ensure that the university’s concerns are reflected in their work.

“We have made it clear that while the shutdown hasn’t had a major impact on Northeastern yet, if it goes much longer, it will have a significant negative impact on research and scholarship,” said Tim Leshan, Northeastern’s vice president for government relations.

The shutdown has had a bigger effect on large, national laboratories such as NASA and the National Weather Service. Several Northeastern students who were set to begin co-ops this month at NASA and other such labs haven’t been able to start because of the shutdown, said a representative from the university’s co-op office.

As the government shutdown stretches on—Trump has warned it may go on for “months, or even years”—the potential risks to federally-funded university research increase, Luzzi said. If the shutdown lasts until Jan. 11, it will tie the record for the longest one, which occurred in 1995 under President Bill Clinton.  

If the shutdown continues through the university’s fiscal year, which ends on June 30, it could result in a loss of new awards from the National Science Foundation. If it continues through the federal fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, it would be “a big hit for academia in general,” Luzzi said.  

Luzzi added that it is unlikely that the shutdown will last until the end of the university’s fiscal year or longer. But if the shutdown were to last through September, “universities en masse would descend upon Washington,” he said. “There would be so much pressure on the delegations from all 50 states. The political pressure would be enormous.”

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