Government shutdowns, sequesters and medical research

Remember the last government shutdown? Employees furloughed, government offices closed or only open part-time, financial losses in the billions, social services programs severely limited, national parks closed and so on. Then the sequester, with drastic, across-the-board cuts to all manner of government programs? Not fun, right? Well, we’re gearing up for another budget fight that could result in similar shutdowns and cuts, so it’s worth reviewing how much damage the last one caused.

Medical research, via Pixabay

Medical research, via Pixabay

Among the budgets that took some of the hardest hits in the sequester were those belonging to the Centers for Disease Control — shortly thereafter we needed them desperately when Ebola broke out, no less — and the National Institutes of Health. The NIH is a large conglomerate of a number of subsidiary health and scientific organizations. It also provides federal grant funding for medical research at other sites external to the NIH itself. Other grant-making organizations also had their budgets pruned down with a chainsaw, losing between a tenth and a fifth of their yearly budget. That hurt, and not only at the top levels, with budgetary constraints trickled down and affecting researchers at all levels as grant monies decreased or dried up completely.

Remember how during the shutdown there were patients (cancer patients, heart disease patients and others) who could no longer get into research trials that could have saved or prolonged their lives? Remember how there were patients who were unable to get much needed medications because of programs that were defunded?

How about the disappeared grant money, causing research on cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, HIV, stroke and dozens of other diseases to be delayed or even canceled? Remember how the Republicans didn’t seem to mind that Granny might not be able to get her high blood pressure and other cardiac meds? Or that a young mother with cancer couldn’t get into a research program? Or children with leukemia might not be able to get their anti-leukemia treatments?  OR that HIV patients might not…

I’m sure that you remember now.

We still haven’t recovered from the last shutdown and sequester. Those research studies that were delayed might still not have gotten up and started running. Some investigators may have just halted some research projects. We didn’t lust lose money; we lost time, and we may have also lost talent. Some researchers may have migrated to more secure places of employment (the pharmaceutical industry, for example) where they don’t have to pray for grants to come through. With low budgets and tight money, research grants are hard to come by. How many future scientists might have changed their minds, and potential careers, because of that government budget fiasco?

If we have another shutdown and sequester, things will only get worse. I sometimes write on AMERICAblog about amazing developments in science. Those developments are only possible because of the work of educators, scientists, physicians, technical specialists and others, the grant monies that support them and the research projects that they do. Please, get in touch with your members of Congress (contact info here) and let them know how you feel.

We can’t afford another shutdown.


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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