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Federal Shutdown Shuts Down Some BU Research

D.C. brawl touches Boston


Alan Jette has been trying to save the government a little money. The School of Public Health professor has been researching cost-effective ways to assess applicants claiming work disabilities so that they can receive Social Security benefits.

But his research has been halted by, um, a putative attempt to save the feds money.

“We have been asked to stop that work” as a result of the government shutdown, says Jette, a professor of health policy and management and director of the Health & Disabilities Research Institute, who had been collaborating with both the Social Security Administration and the National Institutes of Health. “We meet on a regular basis with our collaborators. But they’re all gone…furloughed, and they’ve been told they can’t use their emails. It has set back our work. It’s absolutely delayed everything.”

The shutdown, resulting from a standoff between President Obama and some congressional Republicans who have demanded he kill or delay his health reform law, has prompted full or partial stop-work orders on about seven BU research projects, including Jette’s, says Andrew Horner, vice president for research finance and operations. Among the affected efforts is the famous Framingham Heart Study (FHS), already reeling from the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester and federal policy changes. The study, begun in 1948 and run by BU since 1971, is the nation’s oldest large-scale study of cardiovascular disease.

The FHS is in the final weeks of studying offspring of the original participants, as well as minority participants. “Dozens of scheduled appointments for subjects from out of town have had to be canceled since the shutdown began” two weeks ago, says principal investigator Philip Wolf, a School of Medicine professor of neurology and a School of Public Health professor of public health. “This has created a significant hardship, since these subjects include participants who are the least likely to attend and the most difficult to encourage, as they are typically elderly and less well.”

Robert Kennedy got a full stop-work order for his work through the US Geological Survey capturing space-based views of Earth’s landscapes and studying how humans and nature change them. Projects with other agencies are continuing, but like Jette’s, Kennedy’s research is hampered by the unavailability of federal collaborators and data, says the College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of earth and environment.

With deadlines approaching, “Each day of continued closure causes increasingly detrimental effects,” Kennedy says.

At least one affected researcher says the hit to his work has been minimal. Daniel Miller, a School of Social Work assistant professor, is part of a multi-institution project studying how the involvement of fathers who don’t live with their children can affect food insecurity for those children.

His project analyzes existing data, Miller says, obviating the need to pay for subjects or additional materials. Also, the project is scheduled to end in December, and he is spending less time on it. The one outstanding question, he says, is whether he and his collaborators will have federal money to travel to a conference next month to present their results.

Most non–University­-funded research at BU is through grants, and those are proceeding, although some routine work has had to stop because the shutdown has idled federal personnel and administrative systems, Provost Jean Morrison wrote in an email last week to the BU community. But the University also has research that’s funded through 25 to 30 contracts with various agencies, representing “not a small dollar amount,” Horner says. Of those, “we have approximately seven contracts that received partial or full stop-work orders.”

Student recipients of federal financial aid would not be affected by the shutdown, according to Morrison. Active duty military personnel and veterans who have been approved for tuition assistance will receive the money, but the government closure has stalled applications for new benefits, she wrote.

Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research, emailed researchers earlier this month with advice on what they could and could not do, depending on their government funding source–a tricky task, she wrote, as agencies’ information kept changing, and “each agency has provided separate guidance related to ongoing activities during the shutdown.”

Senators Monday scrambled to approve a deal that would reopen the government until January 15 and lift the debt ceiling—another battle between Tea Party Republicans in Congress and Democrats there and in the White House—until February. House Republicans meanwhile were stymied yesterday in coming up with their own plan.

Even temporary funding “would be preferable to the shutdown,” Wolf says, but the FHS “requires a clear path for research project planning and execution, and stopping and starting is a major problem.”

Congress has agreed to pay furloughed federal workers retroactively to October 1, the start of Uncle Sam’s fiscal year. “However, it’s unclear if that legislation will carry over to contracts,” says Horner. Once the shutdown ends, “we have some expectation that the government will make us whole, retroactive to October 1, but I wouldn’t take any money to the bank” on that.

In a statement cosigned by various education leaders, the Association of American Universities, a research consortium that admitted BU last year, decried the shutdown and looming debt default for their economic and human toll. “This stalemate threatens to exacerbate the cynicism Americans already feel about the function and importance of their government,” the statement says.

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

6 Comments on Federal Shutdown Shuts Down Some BU Research

  • T. Morrow on 10.16.2013 at 7:40 am

    I can’t believe it’s come to this. What a catastrophe. The democratic process apparently only works when all sides actually believe that a government as such is a good idea. It’s very telling that such an ideological shift has engulfed half of one of the two major political parties. I only hope the President can invoke some executive recourse to overcome this reckless obstructionism. Thanks, BU Today for the article.

    • Peter on 10.16.2013 at 10:24 am

      Do you mean that he might be able to convince the Democratically controlled Senate to approve one of the several House plans already forwarded?
      I see that the President sees it his option to change the law, and delay the employer mandate. Is this legal? Yet, when the House proposes a similar individual mandate delay, they are characterised as anarchists.

      • Anonymous on 10.16.2013 at 2:07 pm

        If the president gave in to a legislative demand to dismantle a law passed by both houses of congress, upheld by the supreme court, and supported by most Americans because a faction of representatives threatened to derail the world economy and shutdown the government, he would be setting a terrible, terrible precedent. This type of behavior by House Tea baggers cannot be tolerated, condoned, or encouraged in any way.

  • DM on 10.16.2013 at 10:29 am

    Is this an OP Ed or a piece of legitimate journalism? The article is written from one side, based on the impacts cited, contains opinion and inuendo (i.e. “punitive attempt”) and leads a reader to an opinion by invoking emotion on the toll this shutdown is causing rather than just presenting facts. As to the substance, is it not the responsibility of the peoples’ representation to vote according to their constitucency? Outside of Comm Ave not everyone feels that our tax dollars are being spent most judiciously, and people want and alternative to spending our way out of problems. Shouldn’t part of our government be standing up to give pause to our spending habits? The level of spending is unsustainable. The year over year defecits leading to greater and greater national debt is soon going to criple us. What is being shown right now in DC is courage and strength in the face of unpopularity to try to sway our actions to make cuts to all but the most necessary programs. If unchanged, the pain that is coming will be far worse than the inconvenience we have felt over the last 2 weeks. We as individuals and families try to live within our means, differentiating between the “need to have” and “nice to have” expenditures. Shouldn’t our government be forced to do the same? Even if it means saying no to some “nice to have” expenses?

  • BU Alumnus on 10.16.2013 at 2:32 pm

    You expect a piece of objective journalism on a university website? Get real.

    • DM on 10.16.2013 at 9:46 pm

      No, I don’t but I still like to call it out so that the 18 year olds know that it’s ok to go against the propaganda.

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