Small business owners waiting to hear if they won federal research grants Monday received a different message than they were expecting.
The Department of Energy did not reveal the latest round of awardees for the long-running Small Business Innovation Research program. Instead, an email from the program office, obtained by Greentech Media, notified applicants that the early-stage research awards had been held up “until Secretary Perry has an opportunity to be briefed on research projects that will take place under his administration.”
“Award notifications will therefore be delayed until that review has taken place,” the email explains. “At this time our office has not been provided with a timeframe for completion of that review.”
This delay deviates from the previously published timeline, under which applications were due February 7 and awardees were to be announced May 1. The calendar notes that the announcement date is preliminary and subject to change. The window for change, though, is limited by an act of Congress, which gives agencies a firm deadline to notify applicants.
Congress first created the SBIR in 1982 to carve out more space for innovative small businesses in federal research. Agencies that spend more than $100 million on R&D annually must dedicate a set amount of that budget to SBIR — 3.2 percent for fiscal year 2017. The legislature subsequently created a related program, STTR, which funds technology transfer via partnerships between small businesses and research institutions. The DOE administers these two programs jointly.
The most recent list of awardees includes companies working on membranes and materials for energy efficiency, companies working on advanced materials and components for solid-state lighting, and companies working on biofuels and bioproduct precursors from wet organic waste streams.
Small businesses that choose to compete for this funding must dedicate time to a rigorous application and line up available staff and facilities to carry out the project, if accepted. Not knowing whether those resources will be dedicated to the proposed project creates uncertainty for these companies and could limit their ability to pursue other work and make timely business decisions.
As such, Congress amended the program's language in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (look for Section 5126) to stipulate that a decision on each proposal can come no later than 90 days after its solicitation closes (except for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, which get a year to decide).
Agencies have delayed SBIR/STTR funding decisions in the past, but for different reasons than in the current case, said Rick Shindell, a nonpartisan advocate for the program who authors the “SBIR Insider” newsletter.
“Most of the time it was based on the fact that we were running our government on continuing resolutions rather than an appropriated budget,” he noted. When faced with budget uncertainty, departments sometimes have to freeze less urgent programs to ensure the continued operation of critical efforts.
The government was facing a funding deadline, but that was averted by a bipartisan spending deal finalized Sunday. The DOE message did not cite financial concerns for delaying the awards, and instead referred to Perry's desire to hear more about the research underway in the organization he now leads.
Monday marked the 83rd day since this particular solicitation closed. It is unclear whether Perry intends to complete his review within the 90 day deadline. The department did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
The details of this scenario mirror reports in April that the DOE had ceased processing paperwork for grants awarded by ARPA-E, the agency's energy innovation organization. Like the SBIR, ARPA-E came into life by an act of Congress, and Congress allocates the budget. The current administration, in both cases, has delayed spending that budget without offering a scientific or financial justification.
Over the weekend, Congress approved a $15 million budget increase for ARPA-E through September. Under President Trump's proposed budget, the program would have been eliminated.