The University Record, February 6, 1996
NSF director addresses complications caused by shutdown
By Jane R. Elgass
While offices that were closed for three weeks during the partial shutdown of the federal government (compounded by a blizzard) are up and running, it will be a long time before things can be described as "business as usual."
In a Jan. 19 letter, Neal Lane, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), told colleagues that "NSF's allowable activities were strictly circumscribed."
Proposals were not logged in, officers did not send or receive requests for reviews, panels did not meet, and the agency was unableto identify funds for new or continuing awards.
"Thanks to an Office of Management and Budget decision," Lane noted, "we were able to process requests for funding of existing awards based on prior obligations."
Lane notes in the letter that while "NSF staff are committed to minimizing the damage to science and engineering and permitting the researchers and educators we support to continue their work uninterrupted . . . NSF cannot conduct business as usual."
"The time period we have lost is one that is critical to the smooth functioning of the proposal review process, and we can expect delays in award actions. Some continuing awards have already experienced a brief funding hiatus due to the shutdown."
Vice President for Research Homer A. Neal says the University "is looking at the potential impact of the shutdown and the federal funding profiles on the University, with particular emphasis on how our ongong projects---and the faculty, students and staff who are carrying them out---will be affected. In the months ahead," Neal adds, "we will continue to monitor the situation, and be discussing strategies for dealing with the impact."
In an "Important Notice" also issued Jan. 19 that details the challenges NSF faces in "catching up," Lane noted that since Oct. 1, NSF has operated without an appropriation on a series of short-term continuing resolutions and experienced two shutdown periods totaling almost four weeks with no money available for salaries or funding of awards.
This resulted in cancellation of panel meetings and workshops, piles of proposals sitting in the mailroom and delays in meeting FY 1996 commitments.
Here's a look at immediate, intermediate and long-term impacts of the shutdowns and continuing federal budget impasse as it will affect NSF and the researchers it funds.
Immediate Impact on NSF and its customer services due to shutdowns
Since Dec. 15, more than 2,500 proposals piled up in the mail room. NSF expected that proposals received by Jan. 5 would be in program offices by the end of January.
The almost 40,000 pieces of mail received during the shutdowns were expected to reach offices by the end of January or early February.
17 review panels and related meetings affecting some 400 individuals did not take place. Another 26 scheduled for January were expected to be canceled or postponed.
NSF expected to process 156 continuing increments due Dec. 15 and another 266 due in January by Jan. 26.
A backlog of 1,500 requests for NSF forms and publications was expected to be eliminated by the end of January. "This means," Lane noted, that "NSF will not be able to meet its customer service standard for processing information requests in two days."
Lane urged researchers to obtain these publications electronically on the World Wide Web at http://www.nsf.gov:80/bfa/cpo/forms/start.htm or STIS.
Intermediate and long-term impacts due to shutdowns
Delayed receipt of proposals and delayed panels mean delays in funding decisions. NSF may not be able to meet requested start dates, the agency will not be able to process proposals within its customer service target of six months, and there may be gaps in funding for successful renewal proposals.
NSF may experiment with some non-traditional review processes, with no compromise of its "rigorous peer review standards."
The agency will explore mechanisms to avoid backlogged award actions at the end of the fiscal year.
Announcements for some newly-planned competitions will be delayed until the existing backlog is taken care of.
Immediate impact due to continuing resolutions
The continuing resolutions have been based on the lower House or Senate actions on NSF's request for FY 1996 or the FY 1995 appropriation, "significantly lower than the request for 1996" for NSF's research and related activities.
Only a prorated portion of this amount is available, making implementation of NSF planning for FY 1996 "extremely difficult because of the uncertainty as to the final budget level."
(Editor's Note: Robert J. Samors, government relations officer in the Office of the Vice President for Research, reported late last week that the most recent Continuing Resolution funds NSF's research account through March 15 at the conference committee level, slightly above last year's funding---$2.274 billion vs. $2.245 billion. Education is funded at $599 million, compared with $606 million. NASA's sciences, aeronautics and technology account, at $5.846 billion is a slight improvement, and the Environmental Protection Agency's reseach and development account, also funded at conference committee level, appears to be slightly better than last year.)
Intermediate and long-term impacts due to continuing resolutions
For some large awards, both new and continuing, the agency will have to make successive partial awards for less than 12 months, rather than providing the total amount for the year at one time.
"Given the unprecedented nature of this year's budget process," Lane concluded, "there are likely to be impacts that we cannot anticipate at this time."
Researchers can access the latest information on the NSF Home page on the World Wide Web: http://www.nsf.gov/.