Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

Science. Shutdown style.

The U.S. government is on partial shutdown as Congress battles another philosophical war. Science has become its POW. Here’s what wartime science looks like.

By: Kelly Tyrrell

Photo by K. Tyrrell

Photo by K. Tyrrell

Doors closed. Websites dark. Twitter accounts silent.

The scientific information stream that covers everything from weather updates to influenza activity to new research grant awards has stopped flowing; all because members of one of the most powerful governments in the world are bickering.

Since October 1, the start of the federal fiscal year,  the U.S. has been on partial government shutdown. Democrats and Republicans in Congress needed to work together to set a budget for the new fiscal year.

Instead, Republicans saw an opportunity to use budget negotiations as a tool to eliminate or defund the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. With Democrats unwilling to give in to the demands, the solution was partial shutdown.

So the government went dark in a war of fundamental beliefs. A religious war if you will, the dogma of which is health care. The casualties are numerous and begin with the roughly 800,000 people initially furloughed as a result of the shutdown.

Some of these are scientists and personnel critical for turning the scientific wheels. Science is suffering, and with it, those who rely on it.

As the 2013-2014 influenza season is beginning  to ramp up, crucial monitoring activities usually performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are nonexistent. If a pandemic is on the horizon, we won’t know it’s coming. We just have to be ready for impact.

Wired Magazine on Monday reported an emergent outbreak of nearly 300 cases of food-borne illness in 18 states. Meanwhile, the CDC is working at only partial capacity, unable to perform the life-saving detective work necessary to stop it.

The CDC’s director, Dr. Tom Frieden even took to Twitter on Oct. 1 to communicate the impact of the shutdown on his organization’s operations, and the nation’s well-being:

CDC had to furlough 8,754 people. They protected you yesterday, can’t tomorrow. Microbes/other threats didn’t shut down. We are less safe.

Scientists in all kinds of federal labs have been forced to put the pipettes down, let the lab cultures grow out of control and/or die, shut off the machines and cease data analysis. Grant funding has been halted. Scientists waiting on money for pending fieldwork — often times incredibly time- or circumstance-specific — are left penniless and uncertain about the future of their projects.

The EPA is functioning on just 6 percent of its usual staff, which means important air and water quality monitoring, waste treatments and regulatory roles have ceased or have been significantly pared back.

NASA has ceased non-essential operations, with the exception of contract work able to continue without federal funding. Rovers keep on roving, for now.

Mars Curiosity Rover, self-portrait//Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars Curiosity Rover, self-portrait//Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

New clinical trials that have proven critical to advancing cancer understanding and treatment stopped recruiting patients. People like Leo Finn, who anticipated starting a new drug trial to treat his metastatic bile-duct cancer, were left without options. But the National Institutes of Health was able to recall some of its furloughed workers to continue some trials late last week.

And meanwhile,  scientists unable to perform their work can only grieve experiments going to waste in the lab. For some, this is a matter of running the analysis again. For others, it’s failed experiments that will never be recovered, animals that will die without ever offering the data they were sacrificed for in the first place, rare cell cultures never to be available again.

It’s a waste of life, a waste of time, a waste of resources. And for some, especially graduate students and early-career scientists, it could potentially make or break their future.

An anonymous scientist provides her or his perspective here:

I don’t think the public realizes the devastating impact that this has on scientific research. Scientific research is not like turning on and off an assembly line. Experiments are frequently long-term and complicated. They involve specific treatments and specific times. You can’t just stop and restart it. You’ve probably just destroyed the experiment.

You also can’t necessarily recover. You can’t begin an experiment all over again. If you do, you’ll be set back months — if there’s even time and personnel to do it. But often, science moves rapidly, times change, and you can’t re-initiate the experiments. It’s an enormous loss to scientific research, an enormous loss of time and personnel.

Photo by K. Tyrrell

Photo by K. Tyrrell

The long-term consequences could be far-reaching and long-lasting. Researchers waiting to apply for grant funding will be delayed in receiving approval and money for those projects. Projects already in progress but waiting on the next installment of payment may have to wait. Labs looking to hire personnel may have to go without.

Even updates to literature databases like PubMed have been delayed, slowing progress and collaboration.

The three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine on Monday called this science in peril.

How many young would-be scientists, as the nation places renewed focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, will question the practicality and their own desires to become a scientist? Grant-funding was a challenge before. The landscape isn’t looking too pretty right now. And how many graduate programs will be able to take new students with uncertain funding?

In fields and labs and institutions already deeply impacted by the sequester, the partial shutdown is profound.

A great Reddit discussion provides some real anecdotes from others scientists on how they have been affected.

How about you? Are you a scientist or federal worker in the sciences facing changes or hardship as a result of this governmental temper tantrum standoff?


About kelly tyrrell

runner. science writer. prairie lover. mountain dreamer.

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This entry was posted on October 8, 2013 by in Policy and tagged , .
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