Shutdown Fallout: Agencies Back in Business, but not "Business as Usual"

As federal employees made their way back to their offices last week to confront a huge backlog of workload, they and the nation learned that federal agencies are not like light switches: they can’t just be turned on and off with an expectation for a normal resumption of operations.

A case in point is the National Science Foundation (NSF), one of the agencies shuttered during the partial government shutdown. As a notice issued on January 28 to the science and engineering community by the NSF clearly demonstrated, operating under a continuing resolution does not mean “business as usual.” According to this notice, NSF during this period will focus on “processing the backlog of awards to universities and small businesses, rescheduling merit review panels that were cancelled, funding facilities and renewing oversight of those facilities, and funding graduate student and postdoctoral fellowships.” Long-term vision implementation on initiatives like the “Ten Big Ideas” will continue, but will be difficult to achieve if the agency experiences another shutdown in a few weeks. Additionally, more than 100 review panels—involving 2000 proposals—were cancelled during the shutdown and require rescheduling.

As American taxpayers, we take for granted the often “invisible” work of federal agencies like the NSF that contribute daily to our national and economic security, health and well-being, and (in the case of NSF) America’s global scientific pre-eminence. The NSF’s greatest asset is its human capital — it functions through the hard work of the Director, research directorate and division heads, program officers, and other dedicated employees who serve the agency. Some of these individuals may not even return to their jobs after a shutdown of this duration, and the agency will certainly face challenges recruiting future talented individuals to fill the vacancies that will be created by the retirement of an aging workforce.

Shutdowns also take a personal and human toll on members of the scientific community. As a January 23 letter from the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) to the President and Congress stated, “Senior scientists are questioning how to pay their postdoctoral researchers, and some postdocs and fellows, many of whom are early in their careers, are not getting paid at all. Indeed, the shutdown is not only affecting the overall research enterprise but is taking a personal toll on those who are vital to its success.”

If there is a silver lining to the recent shutdown, it will be a new-found appreciation by political leaders and the general public of the work that dedicated employees like those at the NSF do every day to serve the national interest of our country.

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