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Shutdown hits UNM research, funding

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It’s not just government employees and national parks feeling the effects of the partial shutdown of the federal government.

Anny Chung is a graduate student at the University of New Mexico working toward a Ph.D. in biology. Since the shutdown began Oct. 1, she hasn’t been able to get into the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge where she does most of her research. The refuge, between Belen and Socorro, is closed.

Chung’s research compares germination rates for two species of range grasses and last month’s rain triggered an explosion of germination. “Germination happens fast,” she said, “and I’ve only been able to get out there twice since the shutdown began. The timing is terrible.”

Scott Collins, a UNM ecologist and biology professor who also does much of his work at Sevilleta, heads a long-term observational study of the dynamics of arid land ecosystems, and climate change and variability funded by the National Science Foundation.

As is the case with Chung’s project, autumn is an important time for Collins. This is especially true because the monsoon rains were so heavy. “This year was a very big year,” he said. “The last big monsoon was 2006. They are somewhat rare events and important to document.”

In addition to changes in weather and climate, Collins measures indicators of ecosystem health – plants, small mammals, how the ecosystem contains and grows carbon. The work relies quite a bit on sensors, many of which function automatically. Others are the hands-on variety that require people on the ground.

But the refuge is closed to visitors and researchers alike.

UNM has a field station on the refuge that he and other researchers can still use, but that’s it. “We can’t go out and take measurements we normally would be doing,” Collins said.

Some medical research is also being held up. A primary victim is UNM’s Health Sciences Center. Federal grants – the lifeblood of many research projects – that were approved but not allocated before Oct. 1 are not being funded. Moreover, researchers said, grant applications are not being processed, which means that, even if the shutdown were to end today, a backlog of applications would take the National Institutes of Health weeks to get through.

Banner notices on the NIH and NSF websites advise caution. Because of “the lapse in government funding, the information on this web site may not be up to date, transactions submitted via the web site may not be processed, and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted,” warns the NIH website.

At the main campus, which does not include the HSC, only two contracts lack funding, said Carlos Romero, associate vice president for research and compliance. A bigger impact is UNM’s inability to do business with the federal government, he said. About 50 proposals await governmental consideration.

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