Science and the Shutdown

The shutdown has had serious repercussions for scientists.

Published October 17, 2013

Science and the Shutdown

Yay, the government's back on! In the meantime, scientists from a broad spectrum of subject areas have had to endure severe setbacks.

Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, summed up many frustrations in this New York Times article:

"How many potential future Nobel Prize winners are struggling to find research support today, or have been sent home on furlough? How many of them are wondering whether they should do something else-or move to another country? It is a bitter irony for the future of our nation's health that N.I.H. is being hamstrung this way, just when the science is moving forward at an unprecedented pace."

While some brave (and anonymous) biology post docs continued their work in DC despite furloughs, threats to animal and cell lines have put many biology experiments in jeopardy. This NPR article brings into sad relief the immense wasted costs of losing even a single transgenic lab animal.

Maryn McKenna has been doing an excellent (and terrifying, as always) job covering the shutdown's impact on the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention.

"Here's what we're responding to right now:  An outbreak of Legionella in a residential facility in Alabama. An outbreak of tuberculosis in another state. An investigation of a fatal case of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever on an American Indian Reservation in Arizona where we've been working for two years to control that disease. A serious healthcare-associated infection outbreak in Baltimore. A cluster of infants who have been dying, or getting severely ill, in another part of the country. A cluster of meningitis in a university in the northeast that is going to require a very complicated response. An outbreak of hepatitis B in healthcare...For every day that goes by, there's a less intensive investigation, less effective prevention of situations like this. If I had to use one phrase to describe what's happening: This is a self-inflicted wound," says Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in this interview.

Geology, climate science, and environmental sciences were also hard hit. Marine biologist Gretchen Hoffman describes the specific challenges of working around the shutdown-imposed 16-day lapse in the extreme conditions of Antarctica in this Mother Jones article.

This Popular Mechanics article describes the setbacks to NASA research. On a lighter note, #ThingsNASAMightTweet saw space science enthusiasts picking up the communication slack on Twitter.

With the government now back online, the losses and catching up strategies are now being assessed. Common worries across scientific fields are the gaps in data that will likely result from the time off and uncertainty regarding future funding.

Andrew A. Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, summarizes nicely,

"Scientists aren't members of just another interest group-they're public servants in whom the country has invested considerable time and resources. When policy makers sideline science, they're also sidelining our safety, health and ability to understand the world around us. Looking at the results of the shutdown, they should realize that this is an experiment not worth repeating."


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