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. 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 more than 13,600 employees, three-fourths of its staff. Only a skeleton crew has been retained for such purposes as the care of laboratory animals. 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 canceled 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 percent across-the-board cut that resulted from the lack of sequestration legislation.
The doors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been closed to more than 8,700 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 more than 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 percent of its staff compared with the 73 percent at the NIH and the CDC. But this cut is further reducing its food-safety programs.
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 more than 2,000 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. If the shutdown continues for more than two weeks, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va., will be forced to close, disrupting long-term research.
Meteorologists made out somewhat better. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration retained 5,400 of its 12,000 employees, largely to support the work of the National Weather Service.
The problem is that politicians think only of today, but science is long term. The training of scientists takes years, and their research projects many months. Interruptions like this one can be fatal to their projects. 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.”