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10/03/2013

Why the U.S. Government Shutdown is Bad for Science

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Furloughed federal workers chant and shout as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and fellow House Republicans hold a news conference on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on October 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"Bad times have scientific value," Ralph Waldo Emerson once said. "These are occasions a good learner would not miss." This may very well be true but for furloughed U.S. scientists, these times of government shutdown are very bad indeed and an occasion they would surely rather miss.

In an editorial published yesterday, Science editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt bemoaned the partial shutdown's negative impact on science mission agencies and the important work they carry out.

Government scientists are now "literally locked out" of their labs, she wrote, and some can't even continue working as unpaid volunteers because of the strict rules.

"They have no access to their facilities or their government-issued computers," wrote McNutt, a geophysicist and former director of the U.S. Geological Survey. "Experiments are interrupted, time series are broken, continuity is destroyed, and momentum is lost.

"The entire scientific community will suffer if the shutdown is allowed to endure for any substantial length of time."

McNutt noted that universities and private labs can't even fill the research void in the meantime; government research agendas are deliberately designed not to compete with or duplicate work being done by the private sector.

The shutdown is also putting Americans' health and safety at risk, she pointed out.

"With the shutdown, (science mission agencies) will no longer be able to track flu outbreaks, update real-time information on water quality and quantity, improve weather forecasts, develop advanced defense systems to keep us safe, and serve many more immediate needs."

Also at risk are 8.9 million low-income mothers and babies who rely on a supplemental nutrition program, according to Forbes. The Wall Street Journal reported that some 200 patients will also be prevented from enrolling in clinical studies for every week that the shutdown continues all of whom are desperate patients seeking a last resort and about 30 of whom are children.

And let's all cross our fingers that a deadly infectious disease especially you, MERS doesn't decide to cause a major outbreak this week. Indeed, the prospect of a mid-furlough outbreak is causing the typically-unflappable Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centres for Disease Control, to "lose sleep," according to CBS News.

"I usually don't lose sleep despite the threats that we face, but I am losing sleep because we don't know if we'll be able to find and stop things that might kill people," he told CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann.

But let's turn again to that Emerson quote; perhaps this shutdown does provide an opportunity that the "good learner" ought not to miss. As McNutt writes in the final paragraph of her editorial:

"I sincerely hope that this shutdown is resolved quickly and that the impacts are minor. But if not, I urge the research community to take stock of real economic hardships, opportunities lost, and damage done, so as to more effectively argue for congressional action on the federal budget."

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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