11 Ways the Government Shutdown Affects Science

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When the federal government shut down early last week, many of the people and projects that explore the universe, cure disease, figure out things we didn’t know before, and generally make our lives and our world better were deemed inessential. More than 95 percent of the staff at the National Science Foundation and NASA have been furloughed, along with three-quarters of the staff at the National Institutes of Health and around half of the staff at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Experiments are being halted. Grant applications are sitting in empty offices unread. Sick patients are being turned away at laboratory doors. Publicly funded data is locked up on websites that won’t function. Time, money, and effort are being wasted and the world will be a worse place for it. Here are 11 ways scientists have been feeling the shutdown’s effects, some big and some small.

1. Lab mice across the country are going to be killed

The NIH and other federal research centers use hundreds of thousands of mice as animal models to investigate diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer. Barred from their labs and unable to work or care for their mice colonies, many researchers will have to euthanize the mice to keep them from overbreeding, overcrowding their cages and starving to death. Some of these animals are genetically altered for research. A single transgenic mouse can cost thousands of dollars, but data it might have provided may be irreplaceable.

2. Antarctic research is abandoned

The entire U.S. Antarctic research program has been canceled, and most of the staff at the three bases will have to be sent home. Depending on how long the shutdown lasts, the researchers may miss most or all of the summer research season. One of the projects affected is NASA’s IceBridge, which tracks yearly changes in Antarctica’s ice sheets and monitors how ice on land and in the sea responds to climate change. Interrupting annual data gathering like this leaves gaps in the data record and affects the accuracy of the analyses that scientists are able to make and the inferences and predictions they can draw from it.

3. Sick people are turned away

The NIH and other federal labs run clinical trials for new disease treatments, but reduced staffs can’t handle additional patients, and new enrollments in the trials have slowed to a crawl. In a typical week the NIH might have taken on 200 new patients, but in the first week of the shutdown only 12 patients, in imminent danger of dying, were enrolled.

4. No one’s tracking the flu

Flu prevention isn’t a problem so much as flu surveillance is, says Maryn McKenna. Many local health organizations already have their stocks of flu vaccines and can distribute them as normal, but with two thirds of the staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on furlough, programs that track disease outbreaks, and share that data with state and municipal health agencies around the country, are shutting down. That will create blind spots in what we know about this year’s flu strains. We won’t know how bad they are, where infections are concentrated, how to direct the limited resources the CDC has, or how to prepare next year’s vaccines.

5. …Or other health problems

The Food and Drug Administration has also furloughed almost half of its staff, curbing its ability to monitor and combat food-borne illnesses and inspect food facilities. In a memo about shutdown staffing, the Department of Health and Human Services admits that the “FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities. FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making.”

While the FDA’s hands are tied, an outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg has erupted, making hundreds of people sick in 18 states. Depending on how long the shutdown lasts, this could be the first of many such outbreaks. As CDC director Tom Frieden said on Twitter the other day, Microbes/other threats didn't shut down. We are less safe.”

6. Hawaii gets left in a sticky situation

Remember when a few hundred thousand gallons of molasses spilled into Honolulu Harbor in September? Federal agencies who were helping clean up the mess, restore and repair affected ecosystems, and investigate the failures that led to the spill have all had to stand down with much of their work left unfinished. State and local agencies will continue working, but progress will be much slower without the additional money and manpower.

7. Other researchers get left in the cold 

It’s not just scientists working directly for the government who are affected by the shutdown. Plenty of other researchers who work at private institutions and independent organizations fund their work partly or fully through federal research grants. With no new grant applications being reviewed, and some grants approved but not fulfilled, even non-government researchers may have to discontinue some experiments or give up on starting others if they were expecting federal money. Delays in grant approval and funding will delay many projects and could keep some from beginning at all.

8. Publishing of new work will be derailed

Even research that’s completed isn’t safe from the shutdown if hasn’t cleared the various huddles to getting published in a scientific journal. If a researcher hasn’t sent their new paper off to a journal for review or submitted revisions on an accepted paper, and they can’t use their email or conduct other work activities during the shutdown, they’re just going to have to wait. On the journal side, some of the editors and peer reviewers (those scientists that review papers for journals to safeguard against errors and flaws in research’s methods and conclusions, and other serious problems like plagiarism) may be government-employed or affiliated and unable to fulfill their duties for the journal. Instead of being shared with other researchers and the public, completed research that’s ready for the world will collect dust instead.

9. Science journalists have fewer resources to work with

If you’re a science writer working on a story about a federally funded research project, or need to talk to a federally funded researcher about their work or get an outside comment on other scientists’ work or even just check some numbers or a fact on a government website (say, census numbers, or polio infection rates), you’re kind of out of luck, especially if you’ve already put money into a reporting trip. Of course, this means less science news for the public to consume.

10. The Mars rover is basically a really expensive paperweight 

11. Plus, so much more

Follow  on Twitter for tons of personal stories and news from reseachers whose research and careers are in limbo for the time being. 

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October 11, 2013 - 4:44pm
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