With the government shutdown now approaching a month, Hope College professor Dr. Jennifer Hampton is among the millions of Americans wondering how long this can go on. “At this point, the main impact is uncertainty,” said Hampton, who teaches physics and serves as director of her department’s summer research program. In November she applied for a new grant from the NSF to continue her research on making batteries out of more sustainable materials. The turnaround on these funding decisions is slow under normal c i r c u m s t a n c e s — H a mp t o n would have expected to hear back from the NSF sometime in late spring or early summer—but she now anticipates that there will be a backlog of proposals once the agency reopens. Even if the NSF were to resume operations soon, the decision on her proposal will most likely be delayed. The shutdown’s longterm implications for researchers grow more significant the longer it persists.
Hampton recalled working through brief shutdowns in the past, but these experiences offer little help as a reference for understanding how this latest lapse in government funding will play out for her department. “We’re in unprecedented territory,” she said. For now, she has enough funding to continue on with her research and hire students to assist with the project over the summer. Hope also has other sources of funding for research projects, and the physics department has been in an ongoing search for these alternative options. Even so, Hope’s research programs still rely heavily on federal grants and will continue to for a long time to come. Hampton suspects that students who receive a research assistant position this summer may also receive a disclaimer: their employment is contingent on the funding available for their project. Hampton isn’t the only person who’s not sure what to expect from the ongoing shutdown. Hundreds of thousands of government workers are wondering where their next paycheck will come from, and many have filed for unemployment.
The New York Times explains that a closed government costs more than an open one. Government workers will eventually collect their furloughed salaries, but their decreased spending in the meantime—along with taxes and fees that go uncollected, payments and interests that the government will owe once the shutdown ends and the cost of repairing damage to national parks—could significantly harm the economy. Many federal agencies are funded through the end of the fiscal year, which ends in September, and can continue to function until then. But plenty aren’t, and a prolonged shutdown could disrupt their efforts. For instance, the Census Bureau might run out of resources to conduct the 2020 census. Even the White House can’t predict how all of this will resolve: the New York Times reports that there are some drafts of Trump’s upcoming State of the Union address based on a reopened government and others based on a shutdown that’s into its sixth week.
Hampton doesn’t know yet how the shutdown will affect Hope’s future, but she does know that the situation will almost certainly come up in her department’s next meeting. “What’s frustrating is that so much of the government that’s being impacted is not political,” said Dr. Hampton.
She’s right—the burden of this battle between Congress and the President has fallen to federal employees worrying about how they’re going to pay bills, to Americans whose food hasn’t been properly inspected, to scientists waiting for a decision on important grants and to the students who won’t gain rich research experience by assisting with their projects if there’s no funding to hire them.