Much attention has been paid to the government shutdown that started last week. Many of us heard heart-tugging stories on public radio about the NIH closing down new subject enrollment at its “House of Hope,” the clinical trial hospital on the NIH main campus. These stories gave many people the impression that clinical research halted around the country when the federal government failed to approve a Continuing Resolution.
The reality is both less dramatic in the short term and more concerning for the long term. For the most part, federally-funded projects at university campuses and hospitals are continuing as usual (or, the new “usual,” as reduced by sequestration), because the grants already awarded are like I.O.U.s from the government. By and large, university researchers will keep spending on their funded grants, with the knowledge that reimbursement will come once the government re-opens for business. The universities and hospitals are, in a sense, acting like banks that loan the government money while waiting for these expenses to be reimbursed.
Also, many clinical trials are funded by the pharmaceutical industry. So it is not the case that hospitals are closing their doors to research en masse. But the long-term effects of a shutdown will have lasting and compounding effects on our science pipeline. The U.S. federal government is the single largest funder of scientific research at American universities. Each month, thousands of grant proposals are sent to the various federal funding agencies for consideration. These in turn are filtered and assigned to peer review committees. The whole process of review, scoring, and funding approval typically takes months, sometimes more than a year.
Under the terms of the shutdown, the staff who normally receive and triage these grant proposals are considered non-essential. All but one of the federal grant on-line submission portals have been taken off-line. So thousands of researchers who had been working for months to write grant proposals for funds needed to conduct the next generation of studies are now left wondering when it will be possible to submit for agency review. Those studies hold the keys to future discoveries that could bring needed cures to the bedside, important products to the marketplace, and new jobs into the economy.
In addition, consider the plight of the researcher who was awarded a renewable grant three years ago that is due to expire. These renewable grants are awarded with the proviso that the scientist may re-apply for ongoing funding in order to continue their important work. During a federal shutdown, no continuation proposals can be reviewed, which will force some of these studies to shutdown and may even result in lab closures.
We simply cannot afford to put the march of progress on hold. Patients need new therapies that can be developed only through clinical trials. Clinical trials are based upon important pre-clinical studies using laboratory animals. And basic science studies at the lab bench illuminate mechanisms which form the bases for pre-clinical research. Federal funding is crucial at every step.
This morning it was announced that three researchers working at American universities won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. All three have received during their careers substantial funding from U.S. government agencies to support their important work. That’s what our taxpayer dollars do when used for science: achieve the highest levels of excellence for the benefit of people, animals, and the planet. The federal government shutdown is a clog in the science pipeline that will have lasting effects because the opportunity costs associated with delayed research are enormous.