How the government shutdown hurt American science, research and medicine

Standard and Poor’s has estimated that the 16-day government shutdown cost about $24 billion dollars.  Moody’s Analytics has come up with a similar figure or about $1.5 billion per day of the shutdown.

That’s a staggering amount of money.

But there are other costs to the shutdown, ones that are less obvious but at least equally far reaching.

Costs to science, research, medicine, society in general. I’m going to focus on science, medicine and research, but first, a few examples of how the shutdown hurt those who are least able to care for themselves, and those who were managing to care for themselves until disaster struck.

Head Start

Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz (bottom right) lead "veterans" in protesting the Republicans own shutdown of the government.

Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz (bottom right) lead “veterans” in protesting the Republicans own shutdown of the government.

Because of the impact of the shutdown, people in the US experienced other effects that were not all related to the financial. For example, some Head Start programs had to close. Those children may be children of single, working parents or parents who are themselves attending school. When these Head Start programs closed, those parents needed to find some other site for daycare.

Imagine a working parent (or a parent who is in school) with a child. She is able to work or attend classes because Head Start provides daycare in a learning environment for her child. Now, suddenly, she’s without daycare and doesn’t know for just how long. She has to find some way to take care of her child while she tries to work. Additionally, she now has to feed her child those meals that he will miss by not being enrolled in Head Start. That could be a crippling expense for someone working a minimum-wage job.

Disaster Aid

Colorado, reeling from massive floods that started in mid-September, had to work on clean-up and restoration with severely limited help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The blizzards that hit South Dakota may have killed upwards of 20,000 cattle. Other herds have strayed and may still die. Some ranchers are facing disaster. Estimates of damage to the local economy may be as high as 1 billion dollars.  Since this happened during the shutdown, assistance from FEMA was virtually nil.

Cattle killed by freak South Dakota blizzard, courtesy of CBS video.

Cattle killed by freak South Dakota blizzard, courtesy of CBS video.

Imagine the shock and fear that these Coloradans and South Dakotans faced as their homes, ranches were destroyed.

Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels could have suffered the same fate – low-income seniors facing a loss of nutritious lunches. They, too would have had to find some way to afford additional expenses. And, since many of them are home-bound, it would have created other logistical problems, as well.

From just these examples, we can see that the shutdown caused a number of other problems: anxiety, fear, feelings of helplessness. People dependent on government assistance suddenly thrust into the unknown. And people not dependent on government support suddenly needing massive amounts of it.

And how much worse would it have been if the government had defaulted? Nationally and internationally it might well have been catastrophic.

Fortunately, that was delayed, for a few months.

But what about the effects to science, research and medicine in general? What happened in these areas?

Let’s take a look at what effects the shutdown had here.

Science, research and medicine

In the above instances, the primary effects were financial, or related to physical or emotional hardship due to the loss of government functions.

But another major effects of the shutdown had to do with the loss of “time”. Time that was wasted because of enforced inactivity.

Some examples:

Many government websites were maintained, but not updated. People rely on these for up-to the-minute information and data. That data was no longer available or, at least, not current. Those who weren’t furloughed (researchers at universities, physicians and many others) didn’t have access to the latest information. That may not sound like a major problem, but when you look at how many people depend on the information superhighway it was, at best extremely, inconvenient. At worst, much more so.

Many physicians and researchers use applications that link them to breaking scientific and medical news. The FDA may issue a drug recall. The CDC may release bulletins about the flu or the ongoing Salmonella outbreak in California. We can also use some of these applications to communicate directly with the government agency – asking questions, sending in information. Perhaps someone needs to report a medication side effect or report a communicable disease. Using these applications, linked to the appropriate website, this can be done quickly and with limited effort. When those government websites are not maintained and workers on furlough, we may only be able to do these things by telephone, if at all. And, because of the shutdown, wait times were much longer than usual. Even now, many government websites and agencies are struggling to catch up with the backlog.

The National Institute of Health which is composed of dozens of other Institutes (the National Cancer Institute, The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, The National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, The National Library of Medicine and the NIH Clinical Center (the US’ flagship research hospital) to name a few) were virtually closed. The National Cancer institute had to furlough about 80% of its workers. Many clinical trials were postponed. New patients trying to enroll were mostly refused, because of the shutdown, The Centers for Disease Control was similarly hamstrung as was the Food and Drug Administration. Food inspections were curtailed or erratic.

Disease

Meningococcus via Shutterstock

Fewer scientists and physicians were available to investigate outbreaks of diseases.The CDC usually sends epidemiologists from its Epidemic Intelligence Service to go to areas where there are reports of infectious diseases. Officers of the EIS were present in New York CIty to investigate the recent meningitis epidemic there among gay men. The number of available EIS members was severely limited. Had there been more than a few scattered outbreaks (like the California Salmonella outbreak) there could have been severe consequences. Take a minute to think about what happened to individual researchers’ labs in the NIH, CDC and other government agencies.

Reagents outdate, research animals need cared for and prepped for experiments, data needs collected at specific times, observations need to be made and recorded, photos may need to be taken, shared equipment needs to be used on schedule. Some reagents are only good for a limited period.

Radioisotopes used in medical imaging often have short half-lives. They may be fine to use on Friday, but completely useless the following Tuesday. They need to be replaced and that costs money and time. Think back to your high school or college science classes. Remember how you needed to add reagents to reactions at specific times? How you had to observe those fruit flies in genetics lab on a specific day? How you had to take measurements at very specific times? Keep accurate records? The same things are happening (or not happening during the shutdown) in research labs. If those chemicals aren’t added, if the animals aren’t observed, if no one is there to get that photo at just the right moment, that entire bit of research may fail and need to be redone.

Months and years of planning and preparation could easily have been ruined during this period. And while reagents will still outdate even when there is no shutdown, in this case, the unplanned for shutdown and its unknown length contributed to increased financial costs and unwarranted delays. And, when the shutdown ends, science can’t be started up like an assembly line from a standstill for a variety of reasons.

Some of those reasons are the following:

Research doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Rarely does a single scientist work totally alone investigating a research topic. He or she works with other scientists, graduate students, post-doctoral students technicians and others. He may articulate with other researchers in his same facility, other institutes, unrelated universities or colleges, businesses or others sites. Data flows from one group to the other. Furlough one group, or even several members of one group and, even if the others are still free to work, their effectiveness is limited. More lost research time. Science can’t be started up like an assembly line from a standstill to almost immediate, full production for a variety of reasons. Think of an automobile assembly line. The line may still run even though the people who attach the doors and install the engines are furloughed, but there’s no acceptable product output. Those uninstalled engines won’t outdate. The cars won’t age and die as bacteria and lab animals will. Automakers don’t have grants that will expire. They don’t have publication dates to meet.

What about scientists who need to use instruments whose time is intensely sought after? Astronomers and astrophysicists who booked time in government-operated observatories that were closed because of the shutdown may have to wait months to book another time to use the equipment. Or if they were looking to use the telescopes for a specifically-timed event (like a meteor shower) they may have to wait a year before they can make those observations. Researchers using other rare government equipment (cyclotrons) or equipment that must be time-shared may, similarly, have their research set back by weeks or longer.

Additionally, there are other factors involved. How many researchers are now considering switching from the government’s payroll to industry? Or leaving the US to do research in other countries? Or leaving research completely? Who wants to work for an employer that may suddenly stop paying for an unknown period? How many are seriously frustrated because of having problems with current research because of the enforced work stoppage? How many are angry because of the anti-science climate in some areas of politics right now?

More than a dozen years ago, I had the privilege of spending four weeks at the CDC. I got to meet many researchers, some whom had been at the forefront of HIV research before HIV even had that name. And others working in other areas of infectious diseases. I got to know several outside of their labs. They had mortgages to pay, kids to get off to school, college tuitions to save for, cars to get repaired, food to buy. They needed their paychecks. On time and regularly. Some of them may now be looking elsewhere, especially since the sequester is still in place, budget questions far from settled and the prospect of another showdown-shutdown may be looming in 2014.

In all of the above situations, there was a crucial loss of time. Granted, money was lost, frustration was generated, anger surfaced, but irreplaceable time was lost. In some instances, while time may not be replaced, perhaps the backlog can be rectified. Perhaps, after a delay, research will get back on track, late but progressing. But there are those who may not be that fortunate.

Remember those people, adults and children, who needed to enroll in government research trials that were suspended because of the shutdown? Some cancer patients who might have had a chance at longer-term survival, some heart failure patients that might have benefitted from a new drug, some who may have had their Alzheimer’s disease slowed? Remember them? Those 200-300 per week that the NIH couldn’t enroll in trials?

Some of them may have progressed too far in their disease processes to now enter into those trials. Others may have simply died while waiting. They are the people who lost more than any of us did because of political grandstanding. They are out of time.

They, and we, deserve better.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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9 Responses to “How the government shutdown hurt American science, research and medicine”

  1. BeccaM says:

    Those same storms that hit Colorado also did a few hundred million dollars in damage here in New Mexico, too. We saw the same stories: No disaster recovery aid due to the shutdown.

  2. LanceThruster says:

    Paraphrasing Sen. Everett Dirksen, “$24 billion here, $24 billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

  3. ArthurH says:

    At least some of the Tea Partyists are discovering that their actions that caused the shutdown were not that popular. A Republican Congressman from Arkansas, based on the reaction from voters when he got back last weekend, said he would not run for a third term in 2014. But he cited needing to spend more time with his family as the reason, though it may be they are the only ones who will still talk to him in his district. And this morning’s Wall Street Journal carried a front page story about the cold reception Sen. Mike Lee of Utah received following the shutdown. He expected a hero’s welcome but apparently couldn’t find a handpicked crowd like Ted Cruz and is instead holed up in his mountain chalet. Lee’s loyalists say that by 2016 people with forget his role in the debacle, but groups are being formed to see that Tea Party extremists don’t get future Republican nominations for office.

  4. Drew2u says:

    “Rational Republican beliefs have given way to ideological character assassination,” Bexar County Judge Carlo Key says in the video, over shots of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other Republican lawmakers. “Pragmatism and principle have been overtaken by pettiness and bigotry. Make no mistake, I have not left the Republican party. It left me.”

    The newest Republican to switch to Democrat; but that last statement, does that mean he does not actually believe in democratic values, just that he’s becoming a Blue Dog?

  5. AndyinChicago says:

    I’m getting my PhD in microbiology, and I had friends who had deadlines for funding from NSF that passed because of the shutdown, and now their funding is in jeopardy. These are people studying cancer biology, wetland ecology, and neural development. I know of at least one researcher who’s changed career goals toward the private sector just to avoid this type of funding issue.

  6. Monoceros Forth says:

    Thanks for the comprehensive review, Dr. Thoma. It’s just another reminder that “government” is an intricate network performing thousands of necessary functions, not just the undifferentiated mass of overpaid bureaucrats that seems to be the right-wing conception.

    I really do wonder what rightists think about science–that is to say, the process and practice of science. (What they think about many of the important results of that process is a matter of public record.) How do they imagine scientific research is conducted? What do they imagine scientists actually do? We get some glimpse of their imagination when they accuse atmospheric scientists of concocting the notion of global warming just to suck up grant money.

  7. caphillprof says:

    Because Democratic voters keep electing DINOs to power in Washington, DC. [Democrats in name only–really Republicans]

  8. caphillprof says:

    They deserve what they vote for. And in South Dakota that $1 billion is payback for their retrograde politicians who voted to shut down the government. I’m sure some South Dakotans realize this but the ones in the papers and on the television didn’t seem to be able to put 2 an 2 together.

    Facts are only good for people who live close to reality. Too many Americans live in a virtual reality and for them, facts are a waste of time.

  9. nicho says:

    So, basically, Tea Party = Terrorist. Why aren’t the leaders in custody? If any foreign organization wreaked this much havoc on the US, bombs would be dropping as we speak.

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