Federal websites go dark amid government shutdown

The budget impasse in the United States that brought non-essential operations of the federal government to a halt last Tuesday also had a major impact on websites used by many educators, researchers and students.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

The shutdown, which triggered furloughs for approximately 800,000 federal workers and the closing of offices, research labs and national parks across the country, is expected to affect colleges, students and academic scientists only minimally at first.

But already some education-related websites and resource portals run by the government and frequently used by people in academe have been left unmanned, and will not be updated until members of Congress and President Barack Obama resolve their differences on federal spending.

The US Department of Education, which said in a memorandum it would furlough “over 90% of its total staff level” for the first week of the shutdown, posted a message on its website warning that its activities had been “curtailed”.

“During the shutdown, information at http://ed.gov may not be up to date, transactions submitted via http://ed.gov might not be processed, and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted,” the message says.

Visitors can still navigate the site, but there is a single site update since Tuesday. It reads: “Government Shutdown”. The department’s Twitter handle, @usedgov, has suspended tweeting during the shutdown, and the National Center for Education Statistics has also stopped updating its site.

The department’s grants-management system, G-5, is at least partly operational. Grantees can still expect automated grants-related transactions, including the drawdown of funds, according to a message on the http://g5.gov site.

Transactions that require work by department employees will not be completed during the shutdown, and visitors are being directed to check the site for updates.

The National Science Foundation’s website and its sister sites, FastLane and Research.gov, are inaccessible “until further notice”, according to a message posted on Tuesday.

The foundation’s message includes specific instructions for things like the publication of new grant opportunities, which have been suspended. Contractors will be notified whether they will be expected to continue work, and no new contracts will be issued, the message says.

The website grants.gov, which is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services and serves as the portal for more than 1,000 grant programmes in 26 federal agencies, will remain operational but with “reduced federal support staff presence”, according to a message posted in red on the site.

A message on the Federal Student Aid website states that officials expect “there will be limited impact to the federal student aid application (FAFSA) process, to the delivery of federal student aid, or to the federal student loan repayment functions.”

The National Institutes of Health, the largest source of funds for medical research in the world, alerted visitors to its website that information “may not be up to date”, and that “transactions submitted via the website may not be processed”.

NIH officials may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted, the message says. Visitors are being directed to http://USA.gov for updates on the resumption of normal government operations.

The shutdown has closed the Library of Congress, and its website is inaccessible. “Due to the temporary shutdown of the federal government, the Library of Congress is closed to the public and researchers beginning Oct 1, 2013 until further notice”, a message on the site reads.

The legislative information websites http://Thomas.gov and http://beta.congress.gov are still accessible. Government data troves such as the Census Bureau and the Bureaus of Labor Statistics and of Economic Analysis have also stopped releasing most new data reports, according to the Pew Research Center.

A brief shutdown would have a minimal impact on colleges, educators and researchers who receive money from the federal government, according to a contingency plan issued by the Education Department.

But a long-term interruption could result in serious setbacks to research and services.

President Obama was meeting with Congressional leaders at the White House in an effort to break the budget stalemate.