How a Government Shutdown Would Affect Academe

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The federal government will roll to a halt just after midnight on Monday if Congress fails to pass a stopgap spending bill. Researchers who use government collections and employees paid through federal grants would feel the effects of a shutdown first.
September 30, 2013

If Congress fails to reach agreement on a stopgap spending bill and the government shuts down on Tuesday, the impact on colleges, students, and university scientists would be minimal, at least at first.

But researchers who depend on government-run archives, libraries, and museums could see their work interrupted, and some university employees whose salaries are paid by the federal government may have to wait for their paychecks.

Student Aid

The shutdown would not disrupt the awarding of student aid or the servicing of student loans, at least in the short term, according to the Education Department's contingency plan. Commercial student-loan servicers and other contractors could continue to work for "some short period of time," but they would have to wait to be paid, and no new contracts would be awarded.

Colleges with government grants could continue their work.

But a lapse of longer than a week could "severely curtail the cash flow" to those colleges with federal grants, according to the contingency plan. Colleges rely on federal funds to pay staff members who run programs for disadvantaged students seeking to enter and stay in college.

The furlough of Education Department staff members involved in making grants could also lead to delays in the awarding of grants to colleges later in the year.

In the event of a shutdown, the department will furlough more than 90 percent of its employees immediately, according to the contingency plan.

If the closure drags on for a week or more, up to 6 percent of the agency's 4,225 employees will be called back to perform "essential" functions, such as providing payments to grantees and administering student aid.

Research Funds

A shutdown would close most operations at the National Institutes of Health, the largest supplier of federal money for basic research at American colleges and universities. Research on the NIH campus, in Bethesda, Md., would be halted, and no new patients would be accepted into the center's medical trials.

But the effect of an NIH shutdown on universities should be minimal because the agency just completed one of its three yearly cycles of grant awards to outside researchers.

Grant applications for the next round are due on October 5, with awards expected to be made in December or January. That means agency officials should have time to catch up if the government shutdown isn't prolonged, said Carrie D. Wolinetz, president of United for Medical Research, an advocacy coalition representing universities and other research organizations.

The NIH's deputy director for extramural research, Sally J. Rockey, sent out a notice last week warning that some grant recipients might have trouble getting access to their money in the event of a shutdown. But such instances should be relatively rare, involving grants having unusual conditions or those affected by some kind of glitch, Ms. Wolinetz said. "That's going to be sort of a bad-luck situation," she said.

Archives and Museums

Aside from the many federal employees who would be affected if the government closed its doors, researchers who depend on government-run archives, libraries, and museums would face disruptions in their work as well.

The Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Archives and Records Administration would close, making some of the country's richest archival, cultural, and scientific collections inaccessible to researchers until Washington reopened for business.

A handful of exceptions might be made for researchers who have "highly time-sensitive" experiments under way or who must provide "ongoing care for research specimens," according to Becky Haberacker, a Smithsonian spokeswoman. For the most part, though, "people would not be allowed to come in and access those collections" during a shutdown.

The National Archives and Records Administration serves thousands of professional and amateur scholars a year. So far this year, about 11,000 registered researchers have made more than 64,400 visits to Archives I, the agency's main building, on the Mall in Washington, and to the repository known as Archives II, located in College Park, Md. Last year the two facilities received almost 75,000 visits from close to 15,000 researchers.

The archives and records agency will continue to process some military records, including those needed for military burials, at its facility in St. Louis, said David S. Ferriero, the archivist of the United States. The agency's Web sites will be up, according to the archivist, but "there will be nobody on the other end" to maintain them.

The Web sites of the National Endowment for the Humanities will also stay up but will not be updated, according to the agency's contingency plan., the online portal through which people search for and apply for federal grants, including NEH grants, will continue to operate but will have a reduced support staff, according to a notice on the blog.