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The gravity of the government shutdown’s impact on science
October 2013
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author
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Hello? Is anyone out there? As we went to press with this issue, the United States Congress failed to agree on a spending plan for the current fiscal year, and many government operations ground to a screeching halt. The impasse stems from fundamental, partisan conflict over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." Although the new healthcare law isn't directly tied to government funding, it is being used as a bargaining chip. While House Republicans want a bill that includes anti-Obamacare amendments, Senate Democrats favor a spending bill with no amendments attached. A group of Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, believes Obamacare is potentially so problematic for the country, it's worth disrupting government funding to undercut it.
 
As a result, when we went to press, close to 1 million government workers were furloughed, some members of Congress gave up their salary pay and government agencies key to the welfare of the drugmaking industry went on a hiatus of undetermined length.
 
Agency operations at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for example, have been limited to "emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property; criminal law enforcement work; and activities funded by carryover user-fee balances, including user fee balances under the Prescription Drug User Fee Act, the Generic Drug User Fee Amendments, the Medical Device User Fee Amendments, the Animal Drug User Fee Act, the Animal Generic Drug User Fee Act and the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act." The FDA further noted that "carryover user-fee balances will only be spent on activities for which the fees are authorized under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act." With respect to medical product user fees, the FDA will not have legal authority to accept user fees assessed for FY 2014 until an FY 2014 appropriation for the FDA is enacted.
 
"This will mean that the FDA will not be able to accept any regulatory submissions for FY 2014 that require a fee payment and that are submitted during the lapse period," the FDA stated on its website.
 
Things look even bleaker on the websites for the Centers for Disease Control (or the CDC, which should be ramping up for flu season) and the National Institutes of Health. A red box greets visitors with the following message: "Due to the lapse in government funding, the information on this website may not be up to date, transactions submitted via the website may not be processed and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted." Since most of the employees of these agencies are on unpaid leave, there isn't anyone to sustain services like PubMed Central or GenBank that are critical to the research community. According to some media reports, research institutions that were recently granted NIH funding have attempted to access those funds, only to be denied. Some scientific meetings scheduled for the busy fall conference season have also been canceled or rescheduled for a day when many hope the government will have its act together.
 
From a reporter's perspective, it's frustrating to write about all of this because just when things look really bad, suddenly they get much worse. The NIH in particular was already smacked down by the sequestration earlier this year, losing $1.5 billion out of its already stretched-thin operating budget. Now the bruised-up agency stands to lose an estimated $600 million more when the government reopens.
 
So with the minds of certain government officials seeming to be on another planet, I headed to the local cinema this past weekend for a little R&R time with the hubby, where we participated in the blockbuster opening weekend of the film "Gravity." The film, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts who survive a damaged Space Shuttle. After debris from a Russian anti-satellite test causes a chain reaction of destruction, resulting in their aborted mission, communications from Mission Control are lost, and Bullock and Clooney are all alone up there.
 
"Gravity" is already being hailed as "the greatest space movie ever made" (high praise from Cuarón's friend and colleague, James Cameron, he of the cinematic achievement that is "Avatar"), and critics predict it will dominate most categories at the next Academy Awards. "Gravity" is also being praised by critics and scientists alike for its realistic depictions of the experience of space travel and its many potential complications, although the film's crew owns up to taking certain creative liberties to drive the plot forward.
 
I should have been dazzled by the intricate performances, awe-inspiring cinematography and sweeping score, but instead, I found myself distracted. Don't you hate it when you spend nearly $30 on 3D escapism, only to remain with your feet firmly planted in reality? Even as I munched my rubbery popcorn, I began drawing parallels between the movie and the government shutdown.
 
Both important space missions and government shutdowns seem to happen about once a decade. When their government counterparts on earth are silenced, Bullock and Clooney are literally flying blind—a position in which many biomedical researchers are finding themselves with vital government funding pulled out from under them. At one point, the film offers a stunning shot of Bullock floating in a spacecraft, curled up in the fetal position with no idea how to pull herself out of this mess—and it seems like some Congressmen and women are doing the same thing.
 
I won't spoil the end of the movie, but if these parallels continue, there could be a happy ending in store for the U.S. government and the millions of people who depend on it to operate normally and efficiently. Or not. The whole thing could blow up in our faces, too (literally).
 
The gravity of the situation cannot be overstated. We'll continue to report on its impact on scientific research next month, and if your research has been affected, feel free to drop me an e-mail at swinderman@ddn-news.com. Until then, while you're twiddling your thumbs and waiting for our elected officials to do what we elected them to do, consider going to see "Gravity" at a theater near you. It pulled in $55.6 million to set an October box office record in its opening weekend. At least someone is doing well these days.  

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