By Carol Guzman
In late December 2018, a partial government shutdown forced many federal agencies to close. While federal agencies are now open again, lost days may have a long-term impact on scientific progress. Furthermore, with a second government shutdown looming, scientific agencies must prioritize what work will be done while agencies are funded short term. Here is a look at some of the work, research and funding that stopped in agencies, departments, and projects across the country during the historic 35-day partial shutdown.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Budgets for the CDC were not tied up in government negotiations. The agency was able to release this year’s flu statistics, revealing that the flu hospitalization was lower this season than last year’s flu season.
Food and Drug Administration: During the government shutdown the FDA suspended many workers and instituted cost-saving measures to review applications for new drug and medical devices. Reviews are typically paid for by pharmaceutical companies; however, the FDA was unable to collect 2019 application fees during the shutdown. During the shutdown, the agency approved 23andMe’s test for hereditary colorectal cancer test. The FDA cutback on routine food safety inspections on seafood, fruits, vegetables and other foods.
National Institutes of Health: While the government already approved the NIH’s funding for 2019, leaving its 27 institutes and centers relatively unaffected by the partial shutdown, the agency’s grant process was in jeopardy. As a federal agency, the NIH was required to publish notices of upcoming proposal review meetings in the Federal Register, the public notice publication for federal agencies. Unfortunately, the publication was closed during the government shutdown. Final grant decisions, including grants for genetic studies, are made at meetings that must be disclosed in the Federal Register. The NIH continued to conduct clinical trials.
National Science Foundation: The NSF awards and funds nearly $8 billion in science projects each year. Last year, the agency distributed $107 million in funding by early January. This year nothing was funded during the time of the government shutdown. The NSF has proposal review meetings to review thousands of applications from prospective graduate students hoping to win a Graduate Research Fellowship. Without these fellowships, graduate school programs may lower the number of students they admit this year. NSF workers have started processing proposals and delivering monetary awards that were frozen during the shutdown.
Missed Conferences: Many geneticists from the United States Department of Agriculture were unable to attend the Plant & Animal Genome Conference. Government researchers were not able to attend various conferences because of travel restrictions, impeding academic collaborations that typically ensue at these meetings.
Federal Funding: Many scientists who have their research funded with federal money are also experiencing complications. Scientists were not receiving the money necessary to continue their experiments, which for many has long-term impact on their work. This impacts many colleges and universities
Ticking Clock on Research Materials: As experiments and paychecks were put on pause scientists were struggling to keep insects, plant and microbes, that are vital to their research, alive. The shutdown created significant setbacks for federal researchers who were at risk of having their research subjects die. Sneaking in to save experiments housed in federal facilities during the shutdown is in violation of federal law.
A Long-Term Impact?
The partial shutdown can potentially have a long-term impact on scientific progress, including genetics research. The NIH is the biggest funder of the biomedical research in the United States; their total budget for FY 2019 is $39 billion. Their budget has allowed them to financially back genetic researchers, studies, National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Centers, the Cancer Moonshot cancer initiative and the All of Us precision medicine study amid the shutdown. The NIH’s clinical trials continued during the shutdown, however, the agency did not admit new patients or implement new research proposals.
Pharmaceutical companies use government-funded research to create life-saving experimental treatments. Unfortunately, even though the FDA was carrying out reviews funded by their FY 2018 budget, their Investigational New Drugs (IND) program, the program which pharmaceutical companies obtain permission to start human clinical trials, did not review applications during the shutdown. The delay of the IND program hindered various potential drugs and clinical trials that could have helped cancer patients and individuals with genetic disorders. As the government deal is only set to keep the government funded through February 15th the delays for life saving treatments and clinical trials for those suffering from cancer or genetic disease may only continue.
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