During the last few months, I have heard postdoc fellows at the NIH discuss the financial realities of working in the government. The fiscal year started on October 1, 2010, and here we are, six months into the fiscal year still without a federal budget.
“My project is on hold because we don’t know if we’ll have funding to continue this fiscal year.”
“I’m putting off getting a haircut because I don’t want to spend money in case we don’t get paid next month if the government shuts down.”
“My lab chief just informed me that my fellowship contract won’t be renewed next year, so I need to find a job soon in this pitiful job market!”
“I’m saving all of my work on a flash drive so that I can work on my manuscripts at home in case we aren’t allowed into the office if the government shuts down.”
“I’m informing the conference organizers that there’s a chance I may not be able to attend and give my presentation at the conference if the government shuts down.”
These are just some of the concerns of postdoc fellows (and other researchers) who work in the government when Congress takes a very long time to pass the federal budget. According to The Washington Post, this year is unique because this is the latest in a fiscal year that the budget has remained undecided since at least Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
For the last few months, we have all been nervous about the federal budget. This is due to several reasons, among which are:
1) Congress is working to cut $39 billion from the federal budget, including $10 billion already cut by two other short-term measures, amounting to the largest reductions in U.S. history.
We can only imagine how much the NIH budget will be reduced and what that means for postdoc fellows, from not being able to purchase laboratory supplies to no longer having a fellowship position next year.
2) If Congress does not pass the budget or another Continuing Resolution by the current funding deadline, then the government would shut down.
The confusing part about a government shutdown is that we’re not even sure what will happen when there is a government shutdown. Federal agencies are drafting contingency plans, but are not disclosing them. Agencies are supposed to continue, “any functions providing for national security, critical foreign relations, and the safety of life and property.”
For the rest of us non-essential folks, however, can we still run our experiments? Will we be blocked from our work email accounts? Can we log in remotely to revise drafts of our manuscripts? Will we receive our stipends or salaries retroactively?
These are all unanswered questions because even our supervisors/mentors don’t have the answers. I guess it’s time to stop asking these questions and just try to finish as much work as possible now in case we have a forced vacation next week.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Government.
Wenny Lin, PhD, MPH, is a fellow in the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the National Cancer Institute. Prior to joining the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics, Wenny earned her MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2009 and her PhD in Cell & Molecular Biology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008.