With the GOP-led government shutdown nearing two weeks, critical scientific research in the United States is at a standstill. Scientists across a multitude of disciplines, including four Nobel Prize-winning scientists working for the federal government, have been furloughed and are sitting at home.
Valuable experiments are being irrevocably lost. Essential testing has been frozen. Patients suffering from cancer and other critical illnesses are being turned away from clinical trials.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) has become a virtual ghost town, with most experiments abandoned and millions of animals being cared for by a limited number of technicians.
The situation at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, MD is unstable, according to a report in Nature. Hundreds of experiments with animals and cell lines are in jeopardy because researchers can't go to work.The Center for Disease (CDC) has lost nearly two-thirds of its staff, and as the influenza season commences, the agency is unable to properly monitor outbreaks.
Animal technicians are allowed to work so they can provide care for the 1.4 million rodents and 3,900 non-human primates that live at NIH. And there are a few hundred employees who are allowed to feed and maintain valuable cell lines, but everyone has strict limits on how much they can work (some researchers can only go in an hour a day) and everyone is basically just treading water. Researchers have had to think of creative ways to keep their experiments going by freezing specimens or asking technicians to take tissue samples from animals.
The National Science Foundation has virtually closed, and cannot fund or support any of its research or education programs across the country.
And the FDA is operating at about 50 percent, and is "unable to support the majority of its food safety programs."
"FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making."This at a time in which a food-born salmonella outbreak is spreading across the nation.
In short, this hostage-taking by the Republican party – using the very functioning of government as a point of leverage – is causing damage to the United States in real time that can be seen and monitored.
That is, if there were scientists on the job capable of doing such monitoring, and not sitting at home.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, just out from Oneworld Publications.