Shutdown Puts Critical Research In Jeopardy

As the Republican engineered US government shutdown continues its third week, it is becoming more and more apparent that US-based science research efforts and cooperative activities both at home and abroad are being impacted.

Although signals of a possible compromise are coming from Washington, research and operations at federally-funded agencies has been severely hit by inaction on Capitol Hill, affecting everything from flu research at the Centers for Disease Control to food inspection programs at the Food and Drug Administration.? Getting things back to normal will not be an easy task for some agencies.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy told the Chemical and Engineering news in late September that her agency would effectively close, furloughing most of her 17,000 employees.? The shutdown of the EPA will mean that programs and projects in place to ensure industrial and commercial environmental controls will go unmanned through the length of the government closure. Meanwhile, the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton Ohio, already under pressure from existing sequestration cuts, has in essence shut down.

Although NASA has furloughed most of its workforce, the missions that are ongoing were spared the axe from the shutdown and normal day-to-day maintenance of missions such as the ISS, the Curiosity rover on Mars, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and Cassini probe in orbit now around Saturn are functioning normally.

Back here on Earth meanwhile, over at the US Centers for Disease Control, two-thirds of personnel conducting monitoring activities for this year’s upcoming flu season have been furloughed, prompting fears of a stronger than normal flu impact on the population.? While vaccines are produced by private companies, informational snapshots to vaccine companies and public service awareness campaigns provided by the CDC have stopped for the time being.? Both are instrumental to front-line flu fighting efforts. ?The CDC shutdown has also sent four Nobel prize-winning scientists home for the duration of the government stoppage.

A grimmer warning was sent out by Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute.? According to an email distributed to NCI employees?obtained by the blog Boing Boing, grants and other research activities will be under increased stress and the trouble won’t end after the shutdown is over.? In the email, Varmus says:

“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.”

More direct impacts to public safety can be felt with the cutbacks to those who are responsible for the safety of the nation’s food supply.? The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is considered essential, and is thus exempt from the cutbacks but, as Dr. Richard Raymond, the agency’s former Undersecretary for Food Safety explained to Food Safety News recently, neither the USDA nor the Food and Drug Administration will have enough personnel on hand to investigate a foodborne disease outbreak should that occur.??Dr. Raymond noted:

?I’m not worried about the food I eat, but I am worried about what will happen if we have an outbreak.?

The FDA has furloughed about 45% of its staff and, said John Guzewich, former senior advisor for environmental health in the FDA’s Office of Food Defense, Communication and Emergency Response:

“If there’s? food outbreak or some recall or other food emergency, it won’t be responded to.”

Such a scenario could come to pass quite easily.? Dr. Chris Braden, the director of the CDC’s division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases, told Wired Magazine?that of 300 workers normally in his division, 260 have been sent home, leaving him with staff of 40.? At the time of the government closure, there were 30 different outbreaks being tracked by the CDC, including the first signals of a Salmonella outbreak which is a separate incident from the Foster Farms outbreak of last year, indicating an additional pathogen gateway.? For the duration of the government shutdown, however, there will be no resources to continue testing or tracking.? Explains Dr. Braden, “We may be missing something…this outbreak…is outstripping our understanding.”

As Glenn S. Ruskin, spokesman for the American Chemical Society, put it, “Without critical federal research funding, grants will be eliminated or delayed, thus disrupting the scientific enterprise that drives U.S. innovation.”

Featured image by Ben Husmann, Flickr

Edited by A.L.S.