From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research

Recovering from the Shutdown: The Toll on Biomedical Research

NIH is the largest purely biomedical research facility in the world, with about 2,500 individual research projects and close to 1,500 clinical protocols. But during the 16-day federal government shutdown in October, the NIH Intramural Program (IRP) was profoundly affected. Its loss of progress is a big deal. Only 15 to 20 percent of IRP staff was “excepted” from furlough so they could protect life (mostly in the Clinical Center, where 75 percent of the staff were allowed to work), guarantee safety (infrastructure support including security and the power plant), and protect large investments in materials and property (in the lab, that meant animals, cell cultures, and expensive equipment).

There was also a skeleton crew of senior leadership (most institute and center directors, scientific directors, clinical directors, and NIH deputy directors) to oversee the shutdown. Other staff were called back as needed to ensure that the years-long intramural investment of time, labor, and money in science was not wasted. Owing to the hard work of the NIH community, we weathered this manmade disaster and are now happily back at work.

NIH intramural research includes lab-based, clinical, and population-based projects. During the shutdown, all new projects were put on hold and ongoing ones were halted so we could spare any large losses in investments. At the NIH Clinical Center, ongoing clinical protocols continued, but only 25 new patients—including seven children—with serious or life-threatening illnesses were accepted into existing protocols—instead of the usual 200 new patients per week. Only one of seven new protocols was initiated. Elsewhere at NIH, all population-based and lab-based research was stopped. Still, every effort was made to assure that when the shutdown ended we could restart experiments as soon as possible.

Although NIH leadership has tried to ameliorate the effect of the shutdown on our physical property, the impact on the science conducted at the NIH and on our scientists was enormous. Biomedical research is a continuum of experimental activity in which past experiments are evaluated, current experiments are being conducted, and new experiments are being planned. All must occur concurrently; breaks in ongoing experiments sometimes ruin years of work, requiring researchers to start over.

Scientific effort doesn’t occur in a vacuum, but requires interaction with other scientists. It is a creative, interactive, intellectual activity that cannot simply be turned off and on like a faucet. Dedicated scientists at the NIH are thinking constantly about their work, analyzing their results, generating hypotheses, and designing and conducting new experiments. Not being able to do research is uncomfortable and demoralizing to scientists and leads to the loss of momentum.

The shutdown took a toll on our training programs and trainees too. In addition to being a biomedical research enterprise, NIH is the largest training facility in the world for future biomedical researchers. Right now we have approximately 4,000 postdoctoral fellows, 800 postbaccalaureate students, 500 graduate students, and 45 medical students. For many of these trainees, time is of the essence. Their appointments are time-limited (less than one year for the medical students, up to two years for the postbac students, and usually three to four years for the postdocs and grad students). Loss of a few weeks of work and mentoring as well as loss of a few more weeks of momentum—while cell lines are started up again, animals are bred, and experiments that may have suffered in the shutdown are repeated—represent a significant percentage of a research experience that could affect their future careers.

There were other missed opportunities that we may not be able to recover. Because of travel restrictions on all government employees, arranging for travel to scientific meetings was already difficult. During the shutdown, all travel was cancelled, and many NIH scientists had to forgo important talks that they had been invited to give. Furthermore, we had to cancel many important lectures that were supposed to occur at the NIH in early October including a talk by Bill Gates, Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka, and Institute of Medicine President Harvey Fineberg. The Research Festival was delayed and certain aspects—such as the graduate student component—were eliminated.

What are the long-term effects?

• Because of the delay and interruption in research, some of our scientists will lose their competitive edge and may miss opportunities to get their work published in the most highly visible journals and presented at important national and international meetings.
• There was major inconvenience because invitations, events, and other activities had to be rescheduled. This rescheduling means doubling the amount of work many people had to do for the same activity.
• There was some loss in research investment because experiments may have to be restarted. We have tried our best to ameliorate this problem, but it is inevitable that some research dollars were wasted at a time when budgets are very tight.
• Although we have done our best to sustain the NIH research enterprise, we are concerned about the effect on recruitment in the future when trainees and more senior faculty are making decisions about where to apply and what offers to accept.

My positive message to our current and future scientific staff is that even under the most severe of circumstances—a complete government shutdown—we have managed to persevere, the public has become more aware of the important work that we do, and we are back pursuing our mission of conducting research to improve the public health. We will be better prepared if this kind of lapse in funding happens again (hopefully not).