Government Shutdown and Mines

The recent government shutdown, while it was not a unique instance, nonetheless set off a series of events, some of which were easy to ignore and some which had distinct impacts on the American populace in general and the Mines campus in particular. Many of the effects of the shutdown ended up amounting to nothing more than a series of short-term nuisances, but some of the events created problems that continue to plague people at Mines even now that the shutdown has ended and may continue to present problems for some time into the future.

The government shutdown started on October 1st and officially ended on October 17th, lasting a total of 16 days. It was caused when Congress failed to come to an agreement about the federal government’s appropriation of funds for the next fiscal year and thus was unable to pass any legislation that would renew or continue the federal budget. The biggest cause of the disagreement in this situation was over the Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act (more commonly known as “Obamacare”). One side of Congress, spearheaded by the Republican-led House of Representatives, wanted to pass the piece of legislation known as the Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2014 on the federal budget that contained measures which would delay or defund Obamacare while the other side of Congress, headed by the Democrat-led Senate, wanted to pass the resolution without any of these measures included.

Since no legislation was passed by October 1st, the start of the 2014 federal fiscal year, a funding gap was created and the federal government went into shutdown, forcing all federal employees and services not excepted under the Antideficiency Act (also known as those providing “nonessential” services) to greatly reduce or entirely halt all activities until a budget resolution could be passed. Large numbers of federal employees were furloughed while many other government employees (approximately 1.3 million) were required to continue to work essentially without pay, as it was uncertain on what the budget would be resolved and thus on what date they would be paid again. On October 16th, Congress passed the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2014, which authorizes current spending levels until January 15, 2014. President Obama signed the act on October 17th, thus ending the shutdown.

While the effects of the shutdown were incredibly numerous and multi-faceted, it is particularly interesting to look at how the whole affair impacted the denizens of the Colorado School of Mines. It is important to note that in many respects, the campus at large remained partially immune to some of the effects of the shutdown. Mines did not experience the sort of funding crisis that many other institutions went through during this time, which can be partially attributed to the fact that, as Dr. Kevin Moore, the Dean of the College of Engineering and Computational Sciences at CSM said, “because Mines does a higher percentage of industry-funded research…we are less vulnerable than schools who have more government funding.”

Fortunately, many students and professors reported that their research and projects were able to continue mostly uninterrupted throughout the shutdown period. Ralph Brown, the director of the Office of Research Administration at Mines said of that time period, “There was a financial impact but it was minimal overall in that we only had a few small contracts that had to be stopped for a few days. We did have some contracts issued to stop work orders but [they] were rescinded the next day when the shutdown ended. We were able to continue expending funds and receive reimbursement from every federal agency except the National Science Foundation.”

Although it seems that most existing projects and research at Mines were not stopped due to lack of funds, certainly the problems in the federal government did turn into problems for the endeavors of some of the Mines populace. Students and faculty encountered inconveniences and setbacks in many forms. Those who were working with federal employees and organizations found themselves having to postpone or reschedule intended conference calls and meetings with these colleagues and some groups had to start planning for how their projects would be impacted and what would need to be done if federal institution partners that were still open shut down later due to lack of funding.

Dr. Paul Santi, Interim Head of the Dept. of Geology and Geological Engineering at Mines, said that some federally-funded projects received “radio silence,” or no contact at all from the federally connected people managing the projects. Travel plans were thrown into disarray from both sides. Trips involving locations or organizations that had been shut down could not be rescheduled and had to be cancelled. Dr. Tom Furtak, Head of the Physics Department at Mines, spoke of a visiting committee member from the Los Alamos National Lab who was scheduled to visit Golden during the shutdown whose trip was subsequently cancelled, though he did manage to make the journey by changing his reservation so that he traveled as a private citizen instead of as a government worker. Dr. Santi spoke of a faculty member from CSM who was “on loan” to the NSF and who thus often travels back and forth from Washington D.C. who essentially “didn’t have a job” during that time period and lost money due to the shutdown’s interference with travel plans. Dr. Santi also pointed out the closure of national parks interfered with a lot of plans, including those of students on a field trip Utah, making the students unable to go to the parks as planned to study the geology there. A faculty member who has a research project at the Rocky Mountain National Park requires regular data measurements, and the faculty had already lost two weeks’ worth of data due to flooding and lost another two weeks worth due to the park being closed during the shutdown.

The closing of federal websites and their corresponding data also seems to be responsible for some lost potential data among the Mines community. There were many reports, particularly among professors and graduate students, of a general inability to submit new research proposals due to the normal websites for submission being shut down. Many spoke of the National Science Foundation’s RAPID program, which normally allows time sensitive proposals to bypass the normal review systems and receive quick funding, which was inaccessible during the shutdown.
Dr. John McCray, Head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Mines, spoke of an intended project to gather data from the area around Lake Hetch Hetchy, which is a major water source located in California’s Sierra Mountains after a fire in that area. Dr. Santi described an intent to research landslides after the flooding in Colorado. Neither of them were able to submit proposals for this research during the shutdown and even if the projects were to be approved, it is likely that some important data has already been lost in the interim period. The closed websites and organizations also forced the postponement of many proposal deadlines. Dr. Santi said that “it’s pushed the whole schedule back,” pointing out that these delays could interfere with the next proposal cycle as things get “stacked up” while reviewers try to catch up on all the proposals from the shutdown. This could lead to some problems with the funding cycle which could prevent research groups from starting when planned. Additionally, when websites for organizations such as NIST, NSF, NOAA, USDA, USGS, NASA, and others went down, undergraduates to professors lost access to the valuable stores of data these organizations maintain. Many undergraduate and graduate students reported an inability to complete certain homework assignments without the NIST databases and students found themselves having to continue to try and gather the information they needed on a deadline without access to the articles and technical data these sites normally provide.

Of course, one of the other big problems created by the government shutdown is that many students and faculty were unable to apply for necessary grants from the federal government. As Dr. McCray pointed out, other problems arose regarding federal grants, as some grants come in installments and while some faculty members continued to receive their grants, others did not and thus temporarily could not pay their graduate students. Dr. McCray also spoke of two particular students who were financially affected by the shutdown: one PhD student who was unable to submit her planned abstract for her USGS research and whose stipend from the USGS was stopped and one student on an EPA star fellowship whose funding would have been in serious question if the shutdown had continued. Among all of the suspended funding and closed agencies, one of the most obvious instances to the Mines community was the closure of the United States Geological Survey on campus. Not only did this severely limit (or eliminate, as the case may be) the work its employees were allowed to do, but with the USGS offices and website closed nationwide and scientific work from the institution greatly reduced, Dr. McCray pointed out that many consulting firms that were and are working on various aspects of recovery from the Colorado floods were unable to access the storm data the USGS website would normally supply.

Obviously, the government shutdown had a number of other impacts which could not be thoroughly covered in this article. Plenty of people at Mines know or are related to either federal employees that were furloughed or working without pay or contract workers who were working for the government and were temporarily out of work and cannot look forward to any back pay for lost time. Some Mines students and faculty members depend on federal programs that were suspended, reduced, or shut down entirely during this time period. And of course, as Dr. Davis, the director of the LAIS department at Mines pointed out, the impact of the lost research and funding from the shutdown can be overcome but is likely to continue affecting parts of the scientific community long after the shutdown is over.

However, in terms of the Mines campus specifically, as Dr. Rod Eggert, Director of the Economics and Business Division at Mines pointed out, the problems caused by the shutdown can be divided into those which had short and long-term effects. While it was going on, the government shutdown caused the Mines community some inconvenience, stress, tense moments, and the scramble to re-arrange plans, but in the short-term, the government shutdown proved to be, as Dr. Eggert said, “more of a nuisance” than anything else. However, in the long term, the lost data may cost some faculty some accuracy in their research or even the chance to effectively research important events. The delayed proposals and deadlines have the potential to set back projects indeterminately. And the time lost in waiting for institutions to come back online created some lost opportunities in research, data acquisition, finding, grants, proposals, and other areas, some of which can be made up for and some of which cannot. Though some of these setbacks may continue to affect specific parts of the Mines campus for some time to come, the general CSM population escaped the government shutdown relatively unscathed and has already begun recovering from the problems it did suffer during this time. At the very least, the Colorado School of Mines may now be better prepared for whatever decisions the federal government may make once the January 15th deadline rolls around next year.

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