KSJ Tracker October 2, 2013

How does the government shutdown affect research, the environment, medicine, and science?

[Update--Removes reference to Scientific American piece on climate, which dates from the last threatened government shutdown, not this one.]

Now that the government has gone to bed, we're confronted online, in the papers, and on cable news with an unending stream of comment, mostly uninformed, about what will happen. How long with the shutdown last? Why isn't the president talking? Why can't veterans visit the open-air World War II memorial? And even WWRRTOD? (What would Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill do?)

The national parks are once again proudly in the news, something that happens only during shutdowns or when they are on fire. And we can thank Congress for generating more attention than ever before for the National Zoo's panda cam--which is dark for the shutdown.

Can we get past this piffle and move on to something that matters? For instance, what does the shutdown mean for federal science and science-related agencies? For the FDA, the CDC, NIH, NASA, Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Energy, the BLM, the Agriculture department, NOAA, the EPA, the USGS, and the NRC, to mention a few?

I'm as disturbed as anyone about the closure of the National Parks, but, let's face it--not many of us go on vacation in October. The drumbeat concerning the parks and the panda trivialize the government shutdown and imply that nothing terribly important is interrupted by closing the federal government.

Science reporters should be sidestepping that logic with a careful look at the threat the shutdown poses to the agencies we cover.

Maryn McKenna has done an exemplary job of this with a post on her Superbug blog at Wired entitled "A Few Ways the Government Shutdown Could Harm Your Health (And the World's)." She begins by noting that 52 percent of the employees of the Department of Health and Human Services have been sent home.

That includes 68 percent of the work force of the CDC. The CDC tracks disease outbreaks, and, as McKenna points out, this is the beginning of flu season, a poor time to call the disease detectives home. Can the agency possibly do what it must do with less than one-third of its people? Here's part of what a source told McKenna:

    I know that we will not be conducting multi-state outbreak investigations...We will not be doing rapid response for vaccine preventable disease cases or outbreaks, such as measles.  We won’t be monitoring seasonal influenza activity in the U.S. as flu season begins....Surveillance for other emerging infectious disease outbreaks, such as H7N9 and MERS, will be weakened. Our work to prevent HIV/STDs and TB in the states using molecular epidemiology will be discontinued.

That puts the closure of the national parks in perspective. McKenna also reports on what agriculture furloughs will mean for food safety.

Gwen Pearson at Wired reports on Charismatic Minifauna that the shutdown could be devastating to agricultural and conservation science. Studies of corn harvests and neotropical songbird migration can't be put off until Congress resolves its political problems. They must be studied now, or they can't be studied at all until next year. But what's worse, she says, is the intangible effect on scientists. They can't lift a finger while on furlough. If the government could stop them from thinking about their research, it probably would, because that's probably also against the law. She writes:

When federal employees are furloughed, that doesn’t just mean federal scientific work stops. It means federal scientists can’t take phone calls or answer emails. They are not available for scientific collaboration or consultation with non-federal peers. It is illegal for them to do public business when on furlough. Really. This phrase was in a furlough letter shared with me, as well as one shown to Politico: “Due to legal requirements, working in any way during a period of furlough is grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment…”

We need to see more of this kind of reporting, not because we're trying to argue against a shutdown, but because it's important for the public to understand the consequences of a shutdown. Further, there are good stories here waiting to be written. Brad Plumer of The Washington Post tells us that during the shutdown the National Institutes of Health will turn away some 200 cancer patients a week at its clinical research center. They have no other alternatives, he reports. "It's a place where patients undergo experimental therapies and researchers study rare diseases. The center typically sees 10,000 new patients each year."

Not this year, apparently.

Joel Achenbach of the Post does a nice roundup leading with problems at the NIH and reassures us that scientists stationed in Antarctica will not be abandoned.

If you haven't already written a story such as these with regard to your beat, there is still time--perhaps a lot of time. And here's one place to start--the digest of White House contingency plans.

And who's watching, during the shutdown, for a killer asteroid that could slam into the Earth? Andrea Peterson's short post at The Washington Post won't reassure you.

-Paul Raeburn


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