Shutdown vs. Research


(This 1177th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 13, 2013.)


I am revolted when I watch commentators on television talking about what little effect the current federal government shutdown has. Never mind the tragic effect it has on children and the poor; most readers of this column don't fit into those categories. I invite you instead to consider only some of the effects the shutdown has on this nation's scientific research and training programs. In doing so I draw on Lauren Morello's report in the international journal, Nature.


The National Institutes of Health has had to furlough over 13,600 employees, three-fourths of its staff. Only a skeleton crew has been retained for such purposes as the care of laboratory animals.


This facility doesn't gain much attention from media pundits, so who cares?


Well, I certainly do and so should you. The NIH is this nation's central biomedical research facility. It has been responsible for the discovery of treatments that range from hepatitis and mental illness to tooth decay. Clinical trials there for diseases like cancer have had to be postponed or cancelled and new patients are being turned away. Funding for projects across the country including some at local colleges has been stopped. And this cut has been added to the earlier 5.1% across the board cut that resulted from the lack of sequestration legislation.


Never mind all that. Those programs have little direct and immediate personal effect on you, but the flu program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does. The doors of the CDC have been closed to over 8700 employees. And the flu program has been disrupted just as the flu season is upon us. (Suggestion: get your shots now in case supplies run short.)


Meanwhile tracking of other infectious diseases including the seriously threatening Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus has been disrupted. This virus has characteristics similar to the SARS virus that killed over 770 people.


Some agencies are less seriously cut because they are supported in part by private funds. For example, the pharmaceutical industry finances two-thirds of the review process of the Food and Drug Administration. This agency has furloughed just 45% of its staff compared with the 73% at NIH and CDC. But this cut is further reducing its food-safety programs.


Other cutbacks may not bother you as much as they do me. The National Science Foundation, where my wife was formerly a section head and would be among those cut today, could keep only 130 of its over 2000 employees on the job. Some of those had to be retained only because you cannot close down Arctic and Antarctic facilities to make employees fend for themselves on the ice.


The NSF closing has domino effects. For example, if the shutdown continues for more than two weeks, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia will be forced to close, disrupting long-term research.


Meteorologists made out somewhat better. The National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration retained 5400 of its 12,000 employees, largely to support the work of the National Weather Service. And thank goodness for small favors: as I write we have Hurricane Karen wandering around the Gulf of Mexico. But NOAA has problems as well. For example, research on the carbon cycle and greenhouse gases, both influences of climate change, have been shut down because of loss of computer access.


Here is the general problem. Politicians think only of today but science is long term. The training of scientists takes years and their research projects many months. In his recent book, "Letters to a Young Scientist", E. O. Wilson stresses the importance of uninterrupted devotion to task. Interruptions like this one can be fatal to their projects. As one doctor put it, the outlook is "increasingly grim" for training programs that would produce the future's researchers.


And research is cumulative. Recall how Isaac Newton, one of the half dozen greatest scientists in history, credited his predecessors: "If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Today's research influences not only today but our future as well.


According to Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, "This is ridiculous. We can't continue to survive as a research community this way.-- Gerry Rising"