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Saturday, July 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Overcast
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Research at UW-Madison feels effects of federal shutdown

The shutdown has limited the communication between university researchers and government partners.
Credit:Cooperative Institute for Meteorlogical Satellite Studies
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The ongoing federal government shutdown illustrates just how vital federal dollars remain to research on campus, even as they become a dwindling resource.

The U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass a new spending bill by October 1, shuttering most of the federal government and leaving those relying on federal services and paychecks in flux.

This has caused problems in a number of areas at UW-Madison, including research. The university receives more than half of its research money from the federal government. In 2011, it received almost $600 million dollars, the ninth-highest amount in the nation.

While ongoing research funded with previously awarded grants and contracts continues, some federally funded projects have received stop work orders from the government, and many UW-Madison employees on assignment to government projects have been furloughed (the UW's Research and Sponsored Programs provides details in a FAQ about stop work orders).

The shutdown has interrupted the review and submission of grants across federal agencies.

Laura Kiessling, a UW-Madison biochemistry professor, was working on the renewal of a 20-year-old grant that funds graduate student research when the shutdown started.

She says that the university has "aggressively" sought federal funding in response to sequestration -- $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that began in January 2013 after members of Congress failed to put together a deficit reduction plan -- and decreases in state support funding.

Before sequestration, she says, roughly 20% of federal grant applications were approved. That number is now down to 10%.

"It's become really competitive," Kiessling says.

Kiessling also sees a less measureable but equally worrisome impact of the shutdown on future scientific research -- the education of tomorrow's scientists.

"We don't want to deter very talented young people from entering these fields," Kiessling says.

One of the most visible complications of the shutdown has been a University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center. But he says most of the more than 100 federally funded studies at the cancer center continue.

The subjects in Bailey's study are male volunteers who plan to receive prostate cancer surgery, but the study itself has no "direct health benefits," according to the doctor.

"The shutdown has slowed down this study, but I can't say that anyone's care is being affected negatively," he says.

In an interview Friday, when it looked like a tropical storm might move in from the Gulf of Mexico, Steve Ackermann, the director of the Cooperative Institute for Satellite Studies, which analyzes weather forecasting data from satellites, said the shutdown has limited the communication between university researchers and government partners vital for collaborative work.

"We're monitoring the landfall of a hurricane coming in the next couple of days from the Gulf of Mexico, and we can't talk with government people in terms of interpretations of model forecasts and satellite observations," Ackermann said.

While many workers who belong to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association were furloughed, Ackermann said that forecasters with the National Hurricane Center were still observing the storm.

"Whether or not they're getting paid is another question," he noted.

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