Third Week Into US Government Shutdown: Wide-Ranging Local And Global Impact on Scientific Research

As the US government shutdown and the consequent budgetary stalemate rolls into its third week, I contemplate that I am, indeed, one of the fortunate ones - in that my work, in a private educational institution, does not depend directly upon the US Federal government, and therefore, has not been hampered to a significant extent, yet, although some collaborative work with an NIH division has been put on limbo. Many of my friends, some of whom work at the NIH, have not been so fortunate - just what I was so apprehensive about. Many of them have been put on furlough, which accounts for a whopping 73% of NIH employees. Some who were made provisionally 'essential', so that they could have time to wrap up their already-started work, have been under intense scrutiny, and are being rendered 'non-essential' (therefore, furloughed) as time passes. (Update: Read Sara Reardon's report in Nature News on how research work at the NIH is on the path of a slow decay, and how researchers are suffering in unexpected ways.)

In today's The Conversation UK, an NSF (National Science Foundation)-funded neurobiology postdoc, Dr. Alexis Webb, has written on how the shutdown has forced her into a situation where she continues her research in the UK without being paid. Already severely jeopardized by the across-the-board budget cuts of the sequestration, US scientific research has now been critically imperiled further - as voiced by at least three American Nobel laureates recently - by this shutdown that continues on due to petulant political recalcitrance. 

Understandably, the shutdown effect has not been restricted to the biological sciences only. In a statement, Marinda Li Wu, the President of the American Chemical Society, has said that "the budget impasse is effectively choking America’s science innovation pipeline, strangling new discoveries, future economic growth and job creation." The Huffington Post has an updated list of at least 10 ways in which the shutdown is negatively impacting science and scientific research in the US. Of these, one of the most painful is the uncertain future of the US Antarctic science research work, which was already hobbled by sequestration-mandated cuts to NSF funding, and now stands in the danger of being canceled altogether. As Lara Poppick of LiveScience pointed out recently, this means that "More than 10 years of planning, $10 million of government funding and tireless work from the team that discovered life in a lake buried beneath an Antarctic glacier earlier this year may largely go to waste due to the government shutdown" - which would doubtlessly be an enormously tragic and unconscionable loss for science and scientific research. Similarly, ecological studies, which often depend upon highly labor-intensive continuous observation of changes occurring in nature, have been amongst the hardest hit, and the loss may be irrevocable. As pointed out in a recent Science magazine report, casualties of the shutdown includes some of the Long Term Ecological Research projects funded by the NSF - amongst them, a "23-year study based at Palmer Station in Antarctica that tracks how fluctuations in annual sea ice affect the polar biota, including the continent’s penguins..." and a project "...examining how climate variability affects this confluence of urban and arid biomes", based at the now-shuttered Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque. Lack of funds have also forced a switch-off for three US radio telescopes, managed by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and used by thousands of researchers to study astronomical phenomena, including stellar and galactic behaviors.

The continuing budget impasse along with the separate crisis looming in the horizon over the debt ceiling with no end in sight is already hurting US economic interests on a global scale, as an OpEd in CNBC recently pointed out. However, science and research-related activities have not been immune from this global impact. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the multi-disciplinary NIH research group which studies fundamental biomedical problems and maintains collaborative work on a global scale, has been equally affected. NCBI is responsible for, among other things, the maintenance of the GenBank DNA sequence database and PubMed, the Web-based gateway to over 23 million research journal citations. Since the shutdown commenced on October 1, PubMed - used by researchers worldwide - went into a reduced functioning mode with minimal staffing, warning of irregular updates. In addition to hampering critical CDC functions, the shutdown has forced into a reduced mode the main and the subsidiary websites of the CDC (including the site for the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, CDC's authoritative publication for public health information and recommendations) - all considered essential and critical resources for scientists, physicians, and public health officials worldwide.

shutdown messages PubMed CDC

My SciLogs blog-brother, Matt Shipman, has recently pointed out how peer-reviewed science journals are feeling the impact of the shutdown because of its crippling direct and indirect effects on reviewers, editors, as well as authors, not to mention science and health reporters - all of whom are critical contributors to science communication; in fact, for anyone who comes under the definition of a Federal employee (many scientists amongst them) and has been furloughed, it is apparently a Federal offence to use any Federal resource during a shutdown, including checking and responding to official emails or volunteering one's time - even without pay - in any Federal activity (such as research in a Federal institution, or representing a Federal agency/institution at a meeting or conference).

All in all, this shutdown is proving to be a terrible situation, taking a heavy toll on US scientific research and undermining its position as a leader in global science and technology. And all this was brought into sharp perspective by an email from Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the NIH, which was reported yesterday by James Fallows in The Atlantic; in it, Dr. Varmus pointed out many different ways in which the shutdown has been detrimental to the extra- and intramural research programs at the NCI, and how the ripple effect from this prolonged hiatus would continue to hurt US science. Most chillingly, as he mentioned:

[...] further consequences are coming into view. While grant applications can be accepted and stored at, the NIH Office of Extramural Research has discouraged submissions, and applications will not be processed further until normal business operations are restored through Congressional appropriations. [...]

Furthermore, NCI’s Division of Extramural Activities (DEA) has postponed until undetermined dates several site visits to evaluate re-competing centers and large grant applications, and it has postponed more than a dozen meetings to review grant applications. Thus, the NCI’s grant review cycle could be significantly delayed, threatening a smooth restart of NCI’s support of extramural research, even if the NIH reopens relatively soon.

This situation could have serious effects on the review and funding of virtually all NCI programs, including NCI-designated Cancer Centers, program project and SPORE grants, training awards, and individual research project grants.

It is inconceivable to me that in one of the most advanced democratic nations in the modern world, this tremendous damage is being wrought upon the lives and livelihood of countless people in the US and elsewhere, as well as significant harm is being visited upon the nation's present and future prospects and well-being, by a small group of politicians who have been advocating with impunity a government shutdown for years. And now as the people are becoming more and more conscious of the deleterious effects of the shutdown, and the popularity of these politicians and their party continues to tumble, their independently-funded, well-orchestrated spin machine has started to brazenly blame this debacle on the Federal government, while people continue to suffer. Like millions of people nationwide, I continue to hope that reason and sanity would soon return to these proceedings, so that this unhappy situation is remedied.

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