UPDATED-NIH Furloughs to Widen—From Slowdown to Shutdown, U.S. Science Takes a Hit

Drosophila melanogasterThe USDA is closed and no U.S. orders for international fruit
flies can be processed until the government is back in business.
Photo Credit: André KarwathU
UPDATED—The "Activation Energy" blog has learned that NIH will soon be forced to furlough even more Bethesda employees. SEE BELOW

When I saw the federal government shutdown heading inexorably toward us three weeks ago, I discussed with Kevin Wilson, the ASCB Public Policy Director, the idea of organizing a press conference to protest the further damage that a government shutdown would inflict on science. All along, I was hoping we would not have to do this and that reason will somehow prevail in Congress. Then I thought, "Reason? Congress?" We made a reservation for a meeting room at the prestigious National Press Club in Washington, DC, where news happens.

I confess that we thought that choosing October 8, the day after the Nobel Prize for medicine was to be announced, it might be a good strategy for amplifying our message—Here would be great scientists given a great award for a great basic science discovery that advanced knowledge and human health. Little did we know when we picked the date that our very own ASCB past President Randy Schekman and longtime ASCB member Jim Rothman would, along with Tom Südhof, win the highest honor in world science, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. This wonderful news provided the perfect backdrop for our bleak message—the effect of the federal shutdown on basic research won't be temporary.

The shutdown comes on the heels of many bad years for science budgets. As we have stumbled from slowdowns to sequestration and now to a federal shutdown, our country's leadership in world science has clearly weakened. While America keeps slamming the brakes on scientific research, we are, in effect, accelerating the damage done to our longtime leadership in global bioscience, in health outcomes, and in the economic power that we have always derived from basic research. Americans will pay dearly for these slowdowns, sequestrations, and shutdowns. It is no secret that this prolonged gridlock is further slowing down science and not just inside the Beltway. The impact is spreading outward like a shock wave through laboratories across America. The slowdown and the shutdown will have real consequences in finding cures and on maintaining economic competitiveness.

The shutdown is already slowing down science in small but critical ways. Ruth Lehman, the Director of the Skirball Institute at New York University, is a fly geneticist. She depends on fly strains held at international stock centers that can be shared by researchers worldwide. She needed an RNAi fly line from the Vienna Drosophila RNAi Center in Austria. She ordered it through the USDA, only to receive an automatic reply that because the USDA is closed, no orders can be processed to the U.S. until the government is back in business. A fruit fly may seem very small to our politicians but in our science it is a mighty genetic engine for discovery. For the want of a fruit fly, the government shutdown has isolated one highly productive American scientist. For the want of a fruit fly and consistent, long term funding of basic biomedical research, the U.S. healthcare and U.S. competiveness will continue accelerating toward "also ran" status.

We may think of research as a gleaming, high-tech enterprise but real science is a very fragile ecosystem with many players swimming in it. The federal government plays an essential role: Without a functional government supporting the science infrastructure, discoveries and health outcomes will take a body blow.

There are 1,300 program officers at NIH. These are government scientists who help scientists in universities and research centers get their science funded and off the ground. They are all sitting at home today, furloughed. Why are they important? Let me answer with a real-life example. It concerns Tom Südhof—who won the Nobel Prize this week and the Lasker Prize last month. When Tom learned that he'd won the Lasker, not only did he publicly thank his program director at NIH, Chiiko Stanfield, but Südhof invited her to be his personal guest at the flashy Lasker award ceremony in New York. A seat at the Laskers is a hot ticket but Südhof made it a priority to recognize the essential role that his program officer played in the making of the science that the Lasker honors.

Chiiko is now furloughed. Her other scientists who might win a Lasker Award or a Nobel Prize are unable to reach her by email or phone. In the 21st century, Chiiko and NIH are offline.

There are 300 review officers at NIH. These scientists run the study sections that review grants. They are all at home today. No new science is being reviewed. We are frozen in place this morning. We face massive challenges in health care—Alzheimer's, cancer, new contagious diseases, old genetic killer— but NIH is closed today.

Fifteen percent of all NIH grants are cooperative agreements, where NIH scientists partner with extramural scientists. The government shutdown is slowing down science because the NIH partners are not there.

UPDATE-- Sadly enough, the feeling is that things will get worse before getting better. The "Activation Energy" blog has learned that NIH will soon be forced to furlough even more employees. Things are already eerily quiet on the NIH Bethesda campus and now science will take an even bigger blow.

In addition, my concern is that even when the NIH reopens for business, it will take time before science operations return to normal. I am particularly concerned about study sections. The backlog of canceled review sessions will impose massive rescheduling challenges. The best service to the community that ASCB members could provide on this front is that when asked to serve on a study section to make an extra effort to say yes. There will be an enormous need to move the review process and grant funding forward as quickly as possible. ASCB members need to pitch in as never before.

Science is an ecosystem, where every creature matters. If we snuff out one of the partners, we compromise the whole system. I came to the U.S. as a graduate student, seeking a place that had a vibrant and well-coordinated ecosystem of science. Today I fear that we have forgotten how important this is. Today I am wondering what U.S. science will look like in a week or a month or five years. Young scientists are not cave people. They can see labs going dark all across America. One day we may flip the lights back on and find the labs empty. A whole generation of scientific talent may have gone elsewhere.

Stefano Bertuzzi

Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi is the Executive Director of the American Society for Cell Biology. In this position he is responsible, with the ASCB Board, for strategic planning and all operations at the Society to serve the needs of its ~9,000 members and to promote the field of cellular biology and basic science.

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