NSF Tackles Shutdown Backlog as More Uncertainty Looms
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As mailroom employees work overtime on a backlog of at least 2,500 research proposals and more than 40,000 pieces of mail, the National Science Foundation is preparing for more uncertainty. The current continuing resolution allows NSF to continue to operate at roughly its fiscal year 1995 funding level, but it expires on January 26.
"I am very concerned about the serious long-term and short term impact that this unprecedented shutdown could have on the nation's research and education community," said NSF Director Neal Lane. "It has already been very disruptive, and the impact will likely reverberate throughout the year."
Lane added that he is "hopeful that an agreement will be reached for our appropriation that will enable us to recover from the backlog and to continue the business of investing in the nation's future."
NSF supports non-medical science and engineering research and education through competitive grants to about 2,000 universities and other research and education institutions nationwide. The agency receives about 60,000 proposals each year--an average of 240 a day--and makes awards to about one third of them. Typically, a grant is awarded or declined within six months of its receipt. However, NSF officials are warning proposers to expect delays, while promising to do all it can to avoid them.
"Mail clerks and proposal processing technicians will work 12-hour shifts until the proposals are properly accounted for and distributed, said NSF's director for information and resource management, Connie McLindon. She estimated the process to take a few weeks.
In attacking the proposal backlog, NSF's six research directorates will struggle to reschedule dozens of canceled meetings of top researchers--called review panels--who advise the agency on whether or not to fund new proposals. Dr. Lane worried that "although science will go forward, it will limp painfully."
Many of the institutions that NSF supports have already felt the impact.
"The shutdown was beginning to fray nerves when our researchers missed grant deadlines and couldn't get answers to their questions," said University of Alaska (Fairbanks) Provost John Keating.
Steve Kahl, Director of the University of Maine Water Research Institute, worried that some proposals may not be submitted because of lack of information from NSF during the shutdown. He added that even funded research may be severely impacted if the money arrives late. If your field season is three months long, and a month-long shutdown means that the funding will be a month late, you have a real problem," said Kahl.
Dr. Lane remains "cautiously optimistic" that the recognition of the obvious value of scientific research will lead to stable funding, but continues to worry about the potential impact of the shutdown and projected budget cuts over the next several years.
"Americans have been justly proud of our scientific achievements, and assume that we will retain our world leadership. But that assumption has been rocked by the shutdown and by continuing budget uncertainties, he said.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.
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