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Schoolhouse Block: Science Students and the Government Shutdown

Congress at Obama's Healthcare speech [via public domain]
Congress at Obama’s Healthcare speech [via public domain]
This post includes information gathered by Student Bloggers: Katrina Magno, Rachel Cotton, Jane Hu, and Anna Goldstein, as well as from PLOS intern Katie Fleeman. 

It’s Day 5 of the government shutdown and the Panda Cam is still off. What does this mean for American science students?

One of the biggest effects making its way around the science blog-o-sphere is the cutting of funding for scientific research. The NIH has suspended their grant applications; the NSF website is just a splash page with some basic FAQ answers.

Graduate students face another hurdle: the due date for NSF Graduate Research Fellowships is looming, but the application is currently unavailable. The NSFGRF provides graduate students with three-year annual stipend of $32,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance – and the deadline is a month away. With the NSF website completely stagnant, students cannot submit an application or send requests for letters of recommendation. Nor can they directly access the instructions, although the NSFGRFP website has posted screenshots of the 2014 Graduate Research Fellowships Program application.

But to students worried about missing the deadline, rest assured: according to their website, “Once normal operations resume, NSF will issue guidance regarding any funding opportunities that have a deadline or target date that occurs during the government shutdown. ”

The furloughing of the NIH has other implications for student researchers besides the cut in funding. Registrants for the 2013 NIH National Graduation Student Research Conference, scheduled for this weekend, received an email yesterday informing them the conference was canceled.

The shutdown could also impact funding for recipients of federal education money. Over 14 million students receive support through Pell Grants and Direct Federal Loans, and the Department of Education Contingency Plan predicts that these “could continue as usual” as these payments are provided for through mandatory and carryover appropriations. They are, however, only working with minimum staff, and the Washington Post Answer Sheet blog predicts that low staffing, however, could cause delays. According to Forbes, even if the Department of Education stops their payments, students will still have their tuition paid: the universities will give the Department of Education a no-interest loan. And the FAFSA website is still up and running.

On the Job

[via Public Domain]
[via Public Domain]
Funding has a particular implication for students working in federally-funded labs. Dan Maser, a graduate student at the University of Colorado, does his Ph.D. research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is a division of the US Department of Commerce. There are some “excepted” personnel, such as those who keep the atomic clock running, but he and most of his colleagues did not qualify. They got four paid hours to prepare for the shutdown – from turning off equipment to cleaning out the lab fridge – before closing for business.

As a University of Colorado student, Dan can still receive funding from his university. He continues to work from home, using data he’d already collected and editing a paper that was already drafted. The situation is different for many of his colleagues.

“Some of my co-workers have gone to the University of Colorado to go on some lab tours and see what others are doing,” Dan explains. “Others are aimlessly reading papers, more dependent on operating an experiment than me. It’s an eerie feeling, trying to work from home and checking the Washington Post to see if there’s an end in sight.”

Even for students not working in a government lab, the shutdown could impact their research. Anna Goldstein works in a lab in California that collaborates with a national lab.

“I’ve been making plans to go visit my collaborators at a national lab, but those plans will be pointless if they get furloughed,” Anna says. “At the moment, we are just trying to continue working as if everything’s normal, with the knowledge that someone could pull the plug at any time.”

The shutdown can have implications for undergraduate students as well. NASA, for example, has furloughed 97% of its staff – including their interns. Currently, the NASA website internship website isn’t available. According to Student Blogger Katrina Magno, a peer of hers used this semester to participate in an internship at a government funded research center. Her friend hopes she didn’t take off a semester to do nothing.

Outside the Classroom

The shutdown could also affect students in unexpected ways. Slate ran an article discussing how the shutdown of welfare and social service programs could impact college students. According to the author Tressie McMillan Cottom,

For these college students, the effects of the college shutdown can force a decision between dropping out or […] accruing more student loan debt to protect the educational investment they’ve already made.

Cottom explains that for students who are single parents, Head Start can provide childcare and WIC can help subsidize food costs, so parents can focus on their studies.

Another atypical result of the shutdown is that it provides the opportunity for discussion and debate amongst students about the relationship between scientific research and politics. PhD Comics, the popular webcomic created by Jorge Cham, has already weighed in, mocking the closure of research labs.

For Student Blogger Rachel Cotton, the shutdown is part of the greater dialogue on the relationship between science and politics. Last year, she founded a class on Science Policy Ethics at Notre Dame, which sought to demystify the processes and politics of science funding and policy at the federal level. In an interview with The Observer, the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s student newspaper, she explained some of the reasoning behind her class. She was at a talk entitled, “How Not to Get an NSF Grant”

“I thought, ‘Oh God, I really don’t know any of this stuff… And as someone interested in pursuing a career in science, I thought it was definitely something that I should know and that others might think was important as well.”

Of course, right now no one is getting an NSF Grant.

Are you a science student? How is the shutdown impacting you?


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