KSJ Tracker October 4, 2013

The government shutdown is worse for biomedical research than you think.

On Tuesday, I called on science and medical reporters to report on how the shutdown has affected the agencies they cover. I mentioned a few good examples in that original post, and I spotted another one today.

Brandon Keim tells a frightening tale at Wired about how the shutdown is "devastating" biomedical research in the federal government.

Surely devastating is too harsh a word, I thought before I read the piece. Damaging, yes, but not devastating.

Having read the piece, I'm convinced. Devastating is the right word.

Keim interviews a government scientist who was instructed not to speak to the media, and who therefore talks to Keim anonymously.

Experiments, he says, involve specific treatments at specific times:

You can’t just stop and restart it. You’ve probably just destroyed the experiment. You also can’t necessarily recover. You can’t begin an experiment all over again. If you do, you’ll be set back months — if there’s even time and personnel to do it. But often, science moves rapidly, times change, and you can’t re-initiate the experiments. It’s an enormous loss to scientific research, an enormous loss of time and personnel.

Further, it's not enough for an un-furloughed caretaker to feed the lab rats and mice until the researchers return. But that can't continue for long. Ordinarily, the scientist says, "we only take the life of an animal if it's justified to provide new insight that will lead to basic understandings in science, or new treatments in human disease...We don't do it lightly."

If the shutdown continues much longer, rats and mice in experimental colonies will be killed. Some of the experiments they were being used for will never be redone.

Yes, devastating is the right word.

-Paul Raeburn


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