OSU steps in to help research during shutdown

Geology professor is tracking quakes in areas of the ocean floor

NEWPORT — Funding from Oregon State University is allowing a geology professor to use a ship and continue his research during the federal government shutdown.

John Nabelek is tracking earthquakes in highly active areas on the ocean floor, a study which hopes to shed light on plate movements and warn against natural disasters. To prepare for its two-week voyage off the Oregon Coast, the ship Oceanus was being loaded Thursday with supplies and seismic detectors at the Hatfield Marine Science Center at Newport.

"We have a narrow time window to do this because of weather conditions," the professor told the Statesman Journal.

The 38-year-old vessel was the only source of activity at the science center, its team of workers moving amid federal buildings closed by the shutdown. Fifty yards away, a fleet of larger ships run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sat docked outside the agency's two-story compound.

Millions of dollars in approved federal grants are being withheld from Oregon institutions, one of the impacts on researchers since Congress failed to pass a budget. Some agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, have furloughed the staffers needed to send payments on awarded grants.

Until Congress approves a budget, institutions such Oregon State — which received $53 million from the NSF last year — are covering the cost of federal research. Last year, the Oregon University System received $343 million in federal grants and contracts, half of which went to Oregon State, the leading researcher in agriculture and oceanic research. Another $284 million went to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

"There aren't a whole lot of options for state universities," said Rick Spinrad, the university's vice president of research. "Without payment from the federal government, we end up spending state resources on the assumption we'll be paid back later."

Yet even with universities stepping in, some research is on hold. Several research facilities, from NOAA laboratories in Newport to USDA agricultural stations in Burns and Pendleton, remain partially or fully inaccessible to researchers until federal workers return from furlough.

Chris Langdon, a marine biologist and OSU researcher in Newport, leads a program that studies shellfish, including an oyster species possibly affected by the BP oil spill on the gulf coast. The program's range of projects amount to more than $3 million in federal funding.

Langdon said the damage to his research efforts depends on the length of the shutdown.

"We have a skeleton staff working here at the center, but most of the research is on hold," Langdon said. "We can probably manage another week."

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