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Potential government shutdown could disrupt Ohio State research endeavors

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney speaks to press during a briefing on the government shutdown at the White House in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2018. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Ohio State avoided any major disruptions during the two-day federal government shutdown in January, but with another budget deadline approaching Thursday, the possibility of a larger disturbance is a real concern to Randy Moses, interim associate vice president of the Office of Research.

There are many ways in which Ohio State could be affected by an extended government shutdown, but a stoppage of federal grants and contracts to perform research is perhaps the largest. The university spent $864 million on research in 2017, and most of that money came from federal funds, Moses said.

“I’m nervous,” he said. “We have a reasonable amount of uncertainty about the government.”

Moses said faculty and students write requests for “thousands of grants” every year to fund research. In the event of a shutdown, the federal agencies that award those grants would be unable to hear proposals. Not only would this disrupt research opportunities, but ongoing research might also be interrupted.

“We’re doing work on cancer studies for patients, potentially groundbreaking, life-saving studies and if those studies stop, those patients are just in limbo,” he said.

Another disruption to research would be access to federally stored information. Federal databases — such as U.S. Census Bureau data — that researchers often rely on to perform their work would not be accessible, Moses said.

These disruptions would be particularly consequential if the shutdown lasts longer than two days, such as the 21 day shutdown that began in December 1995 and ended in early January 1996.

When faced with situations like a shutdown where the university is immediately impacted by actions taken in Washington, Ohio State’s Office of Government Affairs acts as an intermediary between D.C. and university officials.

The office provides updates to the university regarding the outlook on Capitol Hill while informing Congress on how the situation is affecting the school, said Ohio State spokesman Ben Johnson.

“We have people that work at all levels of government to make sure the university’s position is represented,” he said.

Those working at Ohio State under federal contracts would be immediately affected. James Moore, an urban education professor and former National Science Foundation program director, said government employees receive strict orders in the event of a shutdown.

“You’ve got to turn your computer off, you can’t check email, you can’t check telephones,” he said. “You can’t do anything.”

Shutdowns also yield significant economic impact, Moses and Moore said.

Despite staff reductions and furloughed employees, the interruption often ends up costing more than if the programs remained continuously funded.

In fact, a Jan. 19 memo instructing executive agencies on shutdown procedures from Mick Mulvaney, director of the federal Office of Budget and Management, stated, “The determination of which services continue during an appropriations lapse is not affected by whether the costs of shutdown exceed the costs of maintaining services.”

It’s important to remember there is a human cost to a shutdown, Moses said. At Ohio State, he said grant money is often used to hire graduate students who are beginning their careers in academia, and without those funds those students might be out of a job.

“I try in these moments to think not so much about the dollar symbol,” he said, “but the eyes of the students that I would be looking at.”

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