The best reason for caring about the Federal budget is that you are a good citizen (or permanent resident, or visa-holder). Or, if politics doesn’t interest you in the slightest, the number one reason why you should care about the Federal budget is that the Federal government is most likely paying your salary in some way or another. If you think the Federal budget doesn’t affect you, think again.
First of all, even if your stipend is not directly paid by the Government (such as in a Fellowship), your salary is likely paid from an R01 or other Research grant held by your PI (which is funded by the Government). And even for those of you who are paid by the department (often the case for first year grad students), where do you think the department got those funds? Yep, you guessed it: the Federal government (probably through indirect costs received on all those grants held by all those PIs). Did you ever think what would happen to your research – and your salary – if the Federal Budget weren’t to pass?
Last Friday, the Federal budget for FY2011 was just passed. It was after a near record 7.5 months of negotiations by Congress (yes, you read that correctly – by the time the budget was passed, more of the fiscal year was over than remaining).
Now, this is certainly not the first time that Congress couldn’t agree on the budget on time. This has been going on for years. When an agreement can’t be reached, Congress usually passes a bill which I will describe roughly as, “we can’t agree on any numbers, so all you agencies just go ahead and assume we will use last year’s budget as a guide,” which is otherwise known by its official name as, “Continuing Resolution (CR).”
Generally, CR’s are passed one after the other for several months until finally Congress decides that it is time to actually work towards coming to a compromise (in the past thirty-odd years, only three times was the budget agreed to before the start of the fiscal year, so that a CR was not needed).
If for some reason, Congress can’t reach an agreement AND they also decide not to pass any more CR’s, then all non-essential functions of the government shut down. That’s right, the government shuts down. Federal workers are prohibited from working (it’s against the law), and contractors stop working because the Government declares it won’t pay for any work during the shutdown. A shutdown hasn’t occurred since 1996, but all signs were again pointing to a shutdown last week.
Negotiations were so rough that Government workers, policy-makers, and pundits were sure that an agreement couldn’t be reached. Each side was gaming on the other side looking worse for “causing” the shutdown. Government staff started putting out-of-office messages on their emails when they left for the day. Then, at the eleventh-hour (literally), an agreement was announced and the shutdown was averted. Congressional leaders and President Obama agreed to a final, one-week CR while they wrote up the details of the agreement.
That meant that the Government could go on functioning. NIH and NSF could continue dispersing grant funds. Reviews and Study Sections could occur as planned. Grants.gov could continue accepting grant applications. And researchers around the country could breathe a sigh of relief, as government functions will continue until next time when a shutdown is threatened again.