Thursday, October 10, 2013

On Shutdowns and Science

I'm not one to typically advocate for political topics. Usually I  don't feel that my opinion on matters I haven't researched are of any real value. I don't have an economics degree or have any sense of how the governmental politics works on anything other than a broad level. I am however rather informed on how the U.S. scientific community works and am becoming increasingly distressed by the implications of federal spending shutdown. I don't like talking politics, but this is something that needs addressing.

As pretty much everyone knows, the federal government shutdown on October 1st until the budget can be renegotiated. I honestly don't care how or why this has happened, because to be honest it really doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is that this has happened and we have already felt the impact. What matters to me is that even if the budget is resolved tomorrow, we are going to be feeling it in the scientific community for a long time.

If you didn't know, research at public universities is deeply connected to the federal spending budget. A majority of biological research is funded by the National Institutes of Health, including but not limited to the National Center for Biotechnological Information which houses the databases that almost every biologist uses to compare and research biological information.

(Such as the BLAST tool which is invaluable. I only use it all the time to do research, not that big a deal. The vitriol I have for this particular point is mostly just personal inconvenience.)

From this breakdown, we can see that there are a number of safety mechanisms that are currently not functioning. The least extent of this is the cancelation of medical trials for disease study. To put an ethical spin on this, it means that children aren't getting accepted to cancer trials that can provide them with potentially life saving treatments. (Kids with cancer are being refused treatment. I don't think I could try to play that more empathetically if I wanted to.)

Besides the long term effects that come from delaying every single federally funded medical trial until this all blows over, which means denying sick people medical attention and setting back all trial based research for an unknown period of time, we are looking at a current 0% acceptance rate for grant proposals during this time (which is a slight step down from the already low 14% acceptance rate from the sequestration cuts previously this year.) This means that labs have to shut down their research and cut back on their staff even more than they have already.

It's not just biology though: just look at NASA's website. Our scientific community is at a standstill, and I highly doubt that "non-essential" research is going to be reinstated before the rest of the budget. The real issue is that these labs can't exist without funding indefinitely. Given enough time, the delay in new grant money is sure to sink many labs that are already struggling.

Really though, if you aren't involved in the scientific research community none of that really affects you, right?

Well, the FDA isn't currently running trials either. Which means no new drugs are being approved, and they aren't able to keep up their food inspections. You're poultry and beef are fine as the USDA is still running tests even if their website isn't up, but testing facilities for other food disease outbreaks from fish or produce aren't running. Which is fine, right? I mean, we haven't had a major food poisoning outbreak since... August. But it's not like there's an outbreak happening right now or anything.

Oh right. Now that 300 people have salmonella from a multi-state outbreak, we should probably bring the CDC back online. That's a good idea. Huh, maybe it wasn't the best plan to shut down our nation's ability to monitor and regulate infectious disease outbreaks. Someone should have thought that through.

The real problem is that we still aren't monitoring any of the imported foodstuffs that the FDA normally has jurisdiction over. The CDC is a reactionary agency, and they only have the ability to limit the spread of diseases after they've started. Without the ability to shutdown potential threats, we are going to be looking at a higher incidence of outbreak and we are restricted to catching diseases after they've occurred.

As I said before, I really don't care about the politics behind the shutdown. I do care about our nation crippling itself and allowing both it's scientific research community and disease control protocols to become essentially non-functional. It is literally appalling that we have let this occur. I cannot stand silently as people are suffering because we are unable to fund the most basic preventative measures to keep our populace protected. I cannot think of any reason that we as a nation would allow this to happen, and I cannot condone anyone who thinks this is an appropriate measure to challenge any kind of public policy.