Shutting Down Basic Science—Some Thoughts at Midnight (no, this is not a fairy tale)

time running outLast night at midnight, the government ran out of money and shut down its main operations. Sadly, it left me wondering if perhaps our democracy ran out of steam as well. I've tried to explain what is happening to foreign friends but I am not sure that anyone grasps the logic here, perhaps because there is no logic.


As a former federal employee myself, I am trying to figure out what is happening to vital services and old friends. As the Executive Director of ASCB, I can't believe this is happening to so many hard-working ASCB members who are directly employed by the federal government. Of course, if this drags on, the shutdown will spread its impact to research scientists nationwide.

The truth is that in basic science we are all government workers, whatever our paycheck says in the upper left hand corner. As I mentioned in my previous blog, the government is the one actor who cares for the public good. In basic bioscience, we are all trying to build lighthouses that light the way to better lives for future generations. If the government does not build lighthouses, no one will. Basic research is the quintessential public good. No private foundation or corporation alone could finance the massive technological and educational base that supports American basic research and there are no incentives for industry to invest in basic science.

More narrowly, a shutdown at NIH means that new patients seeking cures will not be admitted to the clinical center. It means that program directors will not be able to talk to their grantees, that study sections reviewing grants will come to a grinding halt, and that most intramural scientists must put their work into hibernation. Stopping NIH in its tracks is more than inconvenient to scientists. It will delay discoveries. It will slow our already decelerating extramural research effort even faster in the United States. It will, most of all, send yet another clear signal to young investigators that science is not a priority in our country, but a political football that a capricious Congress can use for scoring political points. They should take their government-supported training and look elsewhere for careers.

My thoughts go out to all those dedicated and smart "feds" who work tirelessly in our science agencies. Even during the furlough, they will have to pay bills and take care of their kids. Do we run the risk of losing talented employees serving science and our country? I was touched when I heard Tom Südhof's reaction to the good news about winning the 2013 Lasker award. Not only did he thank his program director at NIH, who over the years helped fund his top-notch research, but Südhof invited this "bureaucrat" 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 show that a federal employee deserved to be recognized for the essential role he played at NIH not just in government operations but in the making of the science that the Lasker honors. Basic science is an essential good and those who administer it deserve a few honors, not rubber paychecks.

This is only one of many examples that I could bring to "Activation Energy" readers. Our future depends on the discoveries and innovations that we make today. If science is closed for business today or tomorrow or next month, those lost days will not be ours to spend later. There will be delays, for example, in grasping the mechanisms that drive devastating diseases. But worse, there will be absences where there would have been critical insights and where there would have been a next generation of prize scientists. As I've said repeatedly, without research (or with slashed back sequestered research), we rob our future.

So if our democracy is running out of steam, will our basic science evaporate? Will we see our scientific competitiveness condensate again on another continent? I am not sure we want to run this experiment.

 

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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