The gravity of the government shutdown’s impact on science

When we went to press with this issue, close to 1 million government workers were furloughed, some members of Congress gave up their salary pay and government agencies key to the welfare of the drugmaking industry went on a hiatus of undetermined length. The NIH in particular was already smacked down by the sequestration earlier this year, losing $1.5 billion out of its already stretched-thin operating budget. Now the bruised-up agency stands to lose an estimated $600 million more when the government reopens.

Amy Swinderman
 
Hello? Is anyone out there? As we went to press with thisissue, the United States Congress failed to agree on a spending plan for thecurrent fiscal year, and many government operations ground to a screechinghalt. The impasse stems from fundamental, partisan conflict over theimplementation of the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." Although the newhealthcare law isn't directly tied to government funding, it is being used as abargaining chip. While House Republicans want a bill that includesanti-Obamacare amendments, Senate Democrats favor a spending bill with noamendments attached. A group of Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas,believes Obamacare is potentially so problematic for the country, it's worth disruptinggovernment funding to undercut it.
 
As a result, when we went to press, close to1 million government workers were furloughed, some members of Congress gave uptheir salary pay and government agencies key to the welfare of the drugmakingindustry went on a hiatus of undetermined length.
 
Agency operations at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA), for example, have been limited to "emergency work involving the safetyof human life or the protection of property; criminal law enforcement work; andactivities funded by carryover user-fee balances, including user fee balancesunder the Prescription Drug User Fee Act, the Generic Drug User Fee Amendments,the Medical Device User Fee Amendments, the Animal Drug User Fee Act, theAnimal Generic Drug User Fee Act and the Family Smoking Prevention and TobaccoControl Act." The FDA further noted that "carryover user-fee balances will onlybe spent on activities for which the fees are authorized under the FederalFood, Drug and Cosmetic Act." With respect to medical product user fees, the FDAwill not have legal authority to accept user fees assessed for FY 2014 until anFY 2014 appropriation for the FDA is enacted.
 
"This will mean that the FDA will not be able to accept anyregulatory submissions for FY 2014 that require a fee payment and that are submittedduring the lapse period," the FDA stated on its website.
 
Things look even bleaker on the websites for the Centers forDisease Control (or the CDC, which should be ramping up for flu season) and theNational Institutes of Health. A red box greets visitors with the followingmessage: "Due to the lapse in government funding, the information on thiswebsite may not be up to date, transactions submitted via the website may notbe processed and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriationsare enacted." Since most of the employees of these agencies are on unpaidleave, there isn't anyone to sustain services like PubMed Central or GenBankthat are critical to the research community. According to some media reports,research institutions that were recently granted NIH funding have attempted to accessthose funds, only to be denied. Some scientific meetings scheduled for the busyfall conference season have also been canceled or rescheduled for a day whenmany hope the government will have its act together.
 
From a reporter's perspective, it's frustrating to writeabout all of this because just when things look really bad, suddenly they getmuch worse. The NIH in particular was already smacked down by the sequestrationearlier this year, losing $1.5 billion out of its already stretched-thinoperating budget. Now the bruised-up agency stands to lose an estimated $600million more when the government reopens.
 
So with the minds of certain government officials seeming tobe on another planet, I headed to the local cinema this past weekend for alittle R&R time with the hubby, where we participated in the blockbusteropening weekend of the film "Gravity." The film, directed by Alfonso Cuarón,stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts who survive a damagedSpace Shuttle. After debris from a Russian anti-satellite test causes a chainreaction of destruction, resulting in their aborted mission, communicationsfrom Mission Control are lost, and Bullock and Clooney are all alone up there.
 
"Gravity" is already being hailed as "the greatest spacemovie ever made" (high praise from Cuarón's friend and colleague, JamesCameron, he of the cinematic achievement that is "Avatar"), and critics predictit will dominate most categories at the next Academy Awards. "Gravity" is alsobeing praised by critics and scientists alike for its realistic depictions ofthe experience of space travel and its many potential complications, althoughthe film's crew owns up to taking certain creative liberties to drive the plotforward.
 
I should have been dazzled by the intricate performances,awe-inspiring cinematography and sweeping score, but instead, I found myselfdistracted. Don't you hate it when you spend nearly $30 on 3D escapism, only toremain with your feet firmly planted in reality? Even as I munched my rubberypopcorn, I began drawing parallels between the movie and the governmentshutdown.
 
Both important space missions and government shutdowns seem to happenabout once a decade. When their government counterparts on earth are silenced,Bullock and Clooney are literally flying blind—a position in which manybiomedical researchers are finding themselves with vital government fundingpulled out from under them. At one point, the film offers a stunning shot ofBullock floating in a spacecraft, curled up in the fetal position with no ideahow to pull herself out of this mess—and it seems like some Congressmen andwomen are doing the same thing.
 
I won't spoil the end of the movie, but if these parallelscontinue, there could be a happy ending in store for the U.S. government andthe millions of people who depend on it to operate normally and efficiently. Ornot. The whole thing could blow up in our faces, too (literally).
 
The gravity of thesituation cannot be overstated. We'll continue to report on its impact onscientific research next month, and if your research has been affected, feelfree to drop me an e-mail at swinderman@ddn-news.com. Until then, while you'retwiddling your thumbs and waiting for our elected officials to do what weelected them to do, consider going to see "Gravity" at a theater near you. Itpulled in $55.6 million to set an October box office record in its openingweekend. At least someone is doing well these days.
 

Amy Swinderman

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