The University Record, January 9, 1996

Effects of federal budget war being felt by researchers

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Research universities---including the U-M---that have been used to clear sailing in a sea of federal funding may find themselves becalmed in the wake of a disagreement between Congress and President Clinton about how the government should spend money and when to require a balanced federal budget.

Applications for federal research grants and other paperwork are being stockpiled in vacated offices in the nation's capital, while 260,000 federal employees are furloughed and another 470,000 are at work with minimal or no pay.

The U-M's research expenditures reached an all-time high of $409,200,000 in fiscal year 1995, more than $1 million each day. Of that, $277,900,041 was funded by federal agencies.

At the U-M, Division of Research Development and Administration (DRDA) Director Alan Steiss says new projects that have been approved for funding are most affected by the government shutdown.

"These projects have been put on hold while the agencies are not open," he says. "The tally for just the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awards we have pending is $13 million. There is no authorization to establish project accounts."

Many U-M researchers are in a period of suspension, Steiss notes, and aren't sure whether they can proceed with their research.

The University has been "doing everything it can to assure the impact on researchers is minimal," he says. Projects that have been approved but not yet funded have been, for the most part, covered by the U-M's reserves.

"Our advice to researchers is to continue to spend with some modest conserving of funds in case they run out before funding becomes available," Steiss says. Deadlines for research projects remain the same, he adds, and delays in research results because of the federal shutdown "probably won't be remembered six months down the road."

Both Steiss and Robert J. Samors, government relations officer, research and technology transfer, note that researchers who have questions about their funding should contact their DRDA project representative.

Researchers who have submitted grant proposals but are waiting to hear whether they have been approved "will just have to wait," Samors says. "There will be no action taken on those proposals until some type of funding mechanism is agreed to by Congress and the president."

Vice President for Research Homer A. Neal is seriously concerned about federal funding availability but notes that, to date, payment for approved research accounts has been made. Of equal importance, he says, are the loss of productivity and of "good ideas."

"Faculty who have good ideas that should be under discussion with program officers right now have no one to talk to," Neal says. "If the delay continues, much of this creative opportunity may never be fully recovered, particularly given the backlog that will exist upon the eventual reopening of the government."

In some instances, funding is not provided directly to the University for a project, but awarded to an industrial concern that subcontracts a portion of the project to the U-M. Most industries have issued stop-work orders on such projects without an iron-clad guarantee of federal funds, and if the U-M held such a contract, it also would be forced to stop the work.

"Unlike most universities that make some effort to cover for the government funding peculiarities, most industries immediately issue stop orders," Neal says.

Why do universities continue to cover for the government?

"We have an obligation at a research university to provide thatopportunity for our students," Neal says.

Federal research funding is not the only area of concern to U-M faculty, staff and students. Federally funded student loans, grants and the Work-Study Program funding also were in jeopardy until late last month, when the U.S. Department of Education issued a statement that funds are available for "programs that are forward-funded in the Department's FY 1995 appropriation or FY 1995 (or prior) appropriations with multi-year availability."

Those programs include the work-study funding; Pell grants; state student incentive grants; Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants; Perkins loans capital contributions and teacher cancellations; federal direct student loans; federal family education loans; Douglas Teacher Scholars; Byrd Honor Scholars; academic facilities grants; and college housing and academic facilities loans.

But Title IX HEA graduate education programs and the TRIO programs, even though they are forward-funded, cannot receive payments until budget appropriations are agreed upon.

The backlog of materials that have swamped federal offices will take some time to sort through, caution University officials, and decisions from federal sources may be delayed even after federal budget figures are approved. It still may be some time before researchers and other affected units at the U-M find themselves once again under full sail.