Science Foundation Plays Catch-Up on 111 Deferred Grant Reviews

Agency that hands out $20 million a day plans for a second potential shutdown.

The National Science Foundation, which doles out an average of $20 million a day in some 32,000 current grants to qualified researchers, is well along in its post-government-shutdown process of rescheduling some 111 postponed review panels.

In a Friday call with reporters, three agency officials stressed that daily meetings are taking place in case a second shutdown were to occur when current funding runs out on Feb. 15. And the agency’s top priority when work resumed on Jan. 28, they said, was to “get retroactive pay out as quickly as possible into employee bank accounts.”

Payroll officials “got all 1,408 time sheets by Monday evening,” said Acting Chief Human Capital Officer Javier Inclán, and by Friday, “most if not all employees had received their estimated retroactive pay” for two missed pay periods. Any discrepancies will be reconciled in the next pay period in two weeks, he added. Some retirement papers and separation papers that were “in abeyance” during the 35-day appropriations lapse that began Dec. 21 are now moving as well.

If another shutdown hits, Inclan said, “We will have a better idea of how to prepare” to keep operations as normal as possible.”

The NSF’s non-furloughed employees kept the information technology systems going to receive grant applications doing during the shutdown, noted Office of Legislative and Public Affairs head Amanda Hallberg Greenwell.

Much of the grant-funded scientific work is done not at the NSF’s Alexandria, Va., headquarters but in “facilities operated by external nonprofit organizations who don’t have federal employees,” said Chief Officer for Research Facilities James Ulvestad. “Most had funds obligated prior to Dec. 21, for up to two months, or some for most of the year.”

The safety of both the buildings and the people involved are a clear priority, he said. Contractors had planned in advance for a possible shutdown, so there were “no substantial issues” delaying work in critical projects such as the geoscience research in Anarctica. The same continued progress holds for the NSF’s ongoing “10 Big Ideas” for future investments.

In resuming supervision of some 16,000 grants affected by the shutdown, the effort to reschedule the review panels is a “complex juggling act” due to the personal schedules of the many professionals involved as well as division directors’ differing strategies, noted Erwin Gianchandani, deputy assistant director for computer and information science and engineering.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, some began by teleconference and video, and “yesterday, we started some in person at the NSF building,” Gianchandani said. “We’re working aggressively over several weeks, but it will take on the order of a couple of months to have them all rescheduled.”

For fiscal 2019 programs, he added, the agency is again working to prioritize the list of grant solicitations to the research community that were “in clearance” when the shutdown hit and get them “to the street.”