WASHINGTON -- As congressional leaders attempt the patch together a last-minute deal to fund the federal government and raise the nation’s debt limit, scientists dependent on federal funds are looking on with concern.
For nearly the past two weeks, many of them have been denied access to work, either because the agencies that employ them have been shut down or because the facilities where they operate have been closed. The Obama administration announced Friday that four of the five Nobel Prize-winning researchers currently working for the federal government were “furloughed and unable to conduct their federal research.”
Nobel Prize winners without work are the most notable examples of the damage caused by the shutdown, but the impact is far wider.
Several scientists wrote to The Huffington Post warning that an extended absence could set back their research for years. Stockpiles of lab organisms (mice, fruit flies, and plants, for example) “take years to grow and need to be handled on a daily basis to be kept alive,” wrote one scientist, who asked not to be named. “Treatments in experiments are administered at regular time intervals. One missed treatment creates bad data and diminishes publishing opportunities.”
And even if Congress is able to resolve the shutdown standoff in the next week, the medical and science research community will still find itself on shaky ground. Any deal will likely keep sequestration-level funding in effect, leaving a highly unstable climate for scientists.
Geetha Srikrishna, a research assistant professor at Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., told The Huffington Post that after nearly 20 years of work, she was left unemployed when sequestration hit. The budget cuts ended her research into colon inflammation and inflammation-related cancer, research that had the potential to lead the way for major breakthroughs in therapies.
“My studies, along with my collaborators, had focused on a particular group of immune system molecules that seem to promote early changes in distant sites even before tumor cells arrive there," Srikrishna explained in an email. "If we could understand these molecular mechanisms better, we may be able to come up with therapeutic strategies to block early events that promote spread of tumors.”
Making matters worse for Srikrishna, her husband was also left without work because of federal budget cuts. He was laid off from the University of California San Diego Clinical and Translational Research Institute after 12 years there when sequestration made funding for his program unavailable.
That both Srikrishna and her husband are currently encountering what she called “health setbacks” is just salt on the wound. With dwindling funds and little chance of re-entering the professions they love, and with Congress unlikely to add money for scientific research in the immediate future, there are few good options.
“It has been difficult to make ends meet and a real tough few years for us,” Srikrishna said. “And I hear stories like this from many investigators at all levels and fields of research. At this rate, we all worry that we are going to lose a whole new generation of young scientists, since many will turn away from science.”