Watching Train Wrecks

trainIt’s full steam ahead for disaster or will the
brakes stop the runaway fiscal crisis train in time?
Photo by John Fleischman
Along with the future of U.S. research science, the train wreck metaphor has suffered terribly in recent days. Politicians and pundits had already twisted the metaphor during the federal government shutdown into a cliché about bad stuff happening that's someone else's fault. Now with the edge of the fiscal cliff in clear sight, the expression will likely be crushed in the wreckage.

But a train wreck is, in truth, a useful metaphor for inevitability and helplessness, that is, you watch it happen with your mouth open and your hands tied. Moving trains have incredible mass and momentum. They take hundreds of yards to stop and are completely unsteerable. If something or someone is on the tracks dead ahead, the train rolls on. If there's another train coming head on, it will be even worse.

In recent days, most Americans have felt an increasing sense of helplessness and horror as we watch our country roll, horn blaring, wheels squealing, toward disaster. Two weeks ago, I wrote an "Activation Energy" column on the eve of the federal shutdown. I found myself wondering if perhaps our democracy was running out of steam. Now I can see that was an unfortunate choice of words. The steam is up on the Federal Fiscal Disaster Express. It's the brakes that are failing.

As I write this blog, I feel like I'm writing a message to a future version of myself, one who knows what happened overnight or over the next few days. This future me will know whether the train stopped in the nick of time or whether I will open my eyes on Thursday to a loud blast and a cloud of steam. If it's the second, then the current impact of the shutdown on U.S. scientific competitiveness might seem quaint. But the effect so far has not been trivial.

Last week, the ASCB held a special news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, to protest the waste and damage already inflicted by the NIH and NSF shutdowns. Our ASCB President, Don W. Cleveland, flew in from California and ASCB member and Nobel Prize winner Carol Greider drove down from Baltimore to talk about examples from clinical trials in limbo to the near panic that is spreading through a generation of young scientists, alarmed about their futures. We heard about a growing wave of setbacks and slowdowns that ranged from special RNAi fruit flies that can't be imported, to NIH program officers who are sitting home idle and officially forbidden from communicating with extramural grantees who need guidance on the spending of tens of millions in government research funds. We thought that having such high-level ASCB scientists as these make the damage clear might foster a possible time-out for our leaders so they could see what a decade of slowdowns, sequesters, and now shutdowns are having on American health and American science.

At our press conference, we heard from another remarkable ASCB member and researcher, Rebecca Burdine, an associate professor at Princeton and the mother of a child with a rare genetic disorder called Angelman's syndrome. Basic NIH-funded research has transformed what we know about this once-baffling disorder and given translational researchers strategies for new treatments. These were edging toward clinical trials before the shutdown. Burdine thus stands for two classes of Americans with a stake in basic research—as a young scientist and as a parent of a child whose future depends on a scientific breakthrough. She spoke for both most eloquently.

"I represent the younger generation of scientists," Burdine told the science reporters gathered at the press club. "I started my lab about 10 years ago. My generation has been feeling the strain of the NIH budget for over a decade. You're fighting for a pool of money with people who are just as brilliant, just as ambitious, and have just as good ideas.

"You can't follow what you love when you have to do what's practical. This prevents really good science from being done. I've seen many of my peers spiraling down the drain. They are slowly shutting down their labs and leaving science."

Burdine continued, "My daughter has Angelman's syndrome. This is a disease that we could treat and potentially cure. The only thing keeping my daughter from living a seizure-free life is money. It's like the government threw a concrete brick at a group of people already treading water."

Two weeks ago in this blog, I wondered what U.S. science would look like in the coming weeks. That seems so long ago. Then I couldn't imagine that it would come to this, a whole nation standing on a hillside, watching a screeching train decide for us.

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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