UNC could feel effects of government shutdown

Administrators at UNC and other research institutions are expecting only a minor impact from the federal government shutdown — as long as it is not prolonged.

The shutdown was forced into effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, the end of the 2013 fiscal year, when the House of Representatives passed a budget that contained provisions to delay the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. Senate members and President Barack Obama have said they will not allow the act to be delayed.

The shutdown, which closed down all nonessential federal agencies, will last until lawmakers agree on a budget. The government has not shut down since December 1995, when nonessential operations were suspended 21 days in the longest shutdown ever.

UNC, which relies heavily on federal funding, could face negative consequences if the shutdown lasts a long time.

“We have anticipated that this might happen,” said UNC Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Jim Dean, adding that the University’s senior leadership team has been monitoring this situation for about a month.

Dean said he credits UNC’s vice chancellor for research, Barbara Entwisle, with staying on top of the developments in Washington, D.C. and making sure the University would be prepared.

“We have the funding that we need right now in order to continue conducting our research,” he said.

Entwisle said she does not expect UNC research to be greatly affected in the short term.

“Obviously we are keeping a very close eye on this,” she said. “There will be some immediate effects. For example, our faculty investigators will not be able to submit research applications, research applications that have been submitted won’t be reviewed and there won’t be any new awards.”

Other research universities in the Triangle are feeling these effects as well.

“Basically, there’s nobody at the end to process (proposals),” said James Siedow, vice provost for research at Duke University. “If you were planning to meet a deadline … there’s no way to do that.”

Last year, UNC’s research funding totaled $778 million, with 70 percent coming directly from the federal government and an additional 10 percent coming indirectly from the government through subcontracts with other universities, Entwisle said.

While researchers can continue to use funds from existing grants and contracts, these resources might run out if the shutdown continues for several weeks or months.

“If it becomes too long a period of time, we won’t be reimbursed and we will have to stop work,” said Terri Lomax, vice chancellor for research, innovation and economic development at N.C. State University.

Lomax also said this could affect collaboration between universities in the Triangle.

“We won’t be able to issue any new subcontracts while this is going on,” she said.

Furloughed workers

Though the effects on university research are minimal for the time being, federal departments are facing immediate consequences.

Taylor Jones, a senior biological sciences major at N.C. State, works as a lab technician at the USDA. Most workers in the department have been furloughed until the shutdown ends.

“It was a pretty somber atmosphere,” she said of the mood in her office on Monday night. “Nobody thought that it was going to happen.”

The U.S. Department of Education, which is responsible for administering federal financial aid grants and student loans, is also dealing with the effects of the shutdown.

The department is in charge of the three ongoing federal investigations into UNC’s handling of sexual assault cases.

According to the Department of Education’s contingency plan for the government shutdown, the department planned to furlough more than 90 percent of its total staff for the first week of a shutdown. If the shutdown lasts longer than a week, 6 percent of the staff would be called back to work.

Out of the 212 Department of Education employees who are still expected to work this week, 138 will be processing student loans because the department is obligated to fulfill most loans by Dec. 31.

“We don’t think there are going to be any problems with student financial aid,” Dean said.

But he said the Department of Education could cut funding if the shutdown drags on.

Jones, who depends on the income from her primary job as a USDA lab technician, said she feels lucky because she has a second job in a lab at UNC where she can take on more hours until the shutdown ends. But she said she is nervous for her colleagues who work for the government full time.

“It angers me that people can’t reach a consensus in Congress because it affects some 800,000 workers who are ‘nonessential’ to the government,” she said. “Meanwhile, everyone in office is still getting a paycheck — I think that’s pretty unfair.”

Jones said she hopes to be able to return to work soon — and University officials, like Dean, said they hope the government resumes activity in a matter of days.

“Everyone is hoping that the shutdown does not last for very long,” Dean said. “The congressional leaders and the White House and the Senate are under tremendous pressure from all directions to try and resolve this.”

But Entwisle said there is no way to know when the shutdown might end.

“It’s difficult to predict what’s going to be happening at the federal level — I gave up a long time ago.”

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