No one wants another government shutdown. Not President Obama, who needs the funding to fight ISIS and Ebola abroad. Not Speaker Boehner, who warned House Republicans last month that defunding the government would only backfire. And certainly not the 800,000 federal workers who were furloughed without pay during the last 16-day shutdown, in October 2013.
Fortunately, it probably won’t happen. With a bit of political finesse, experts believe that Boehner can rally the GOP to fund the government before the December 11 deadline—despite Republican outrage over the president’s recent unilateral steps toward immigration reform.
But, lest we forget, it is worth revisiting what happened to science and scientific research the last time the government shut down—and what could happen again, if Congress can’t reach an agreement by the end of next week.
6 Ways the Government Shutdown Will Impact Science and Health
The Government Shutdown Is (Almost) Over, but the Damage to Science Will Last
Government Shutdown Freezes Climate Science
Basic research: Lab mice died en masse
Congress funds about one third of all research in the United States, and the 2013 shutdown locked scores of scientists out of their federally funded laboratories. “Losing two weeks of data collection during a critical research period or two weeks of a key experiment that took months or years to set up will have repercussions for years,” Andrew A. Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote on our site last year.
The shutdown hit lab animals particularly hard. Thousands of transgenic mice, bred for science at significant expense, were euthanized to avoid overcrowding. Other high-maintenance breeds simply died from neglect.
“I’m sure it’s chaos at the NIH for anyone doing mouse experiments,” Roger Reeves, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, told NPR last year.
Space science: We neglected the Webb Telescope…and planet Earth
During the 2013 shutdown, NASA was forced to suspend tests for instruments that would go on the James Webb Space Telescope. Tom Greene, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, told us last year that delaying the project could cost as much as one million dollars per day. Greene added that, since NASA could not afford to delay the mission, researchers might forgo running several important tests.
Even more terrifying than a broken space telescope, however, was that NASA actually shut down their Asteroid Watch program for 16 days. Until the shutdown ended, private companies and the European Space Agency had to monitor the skies for rogue space rocks without NASA’s help.
Health & medicine: Prevention was put on hold
As soon as the shutdown began, the National Institutes of Health suspended all new clinical trials. Each week, the NIH turned away as many as 200 volunteer subjects, many of whom were cancer patients desperately hoping that an experimental treatment might save their lives.
“I am furious,” Michelle Langbehn, a cancer patient who was unable to enroll in a drug trial due to the government shutdown, told CNN in October. “They are denying or delaying potentially life-saving treatments to Americans in need of a miracle. I speak for everyone battling cancer when I say we don’t have time.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also suffered during the shutdown. The CDC is responsible for keeping track of emerging infections and coordinating seasonal flu vaccines. But when two thirds of their staff were furloughed during the last shutdown, health surveillance—and public health initiatives—were put on hold.
International cooperation: Shutdown engendered distrust
In October 2013, federally funded scientists were unable to attend at least one major international conference until the shutdown ended. For more than two weeks many American scientists couldn’t share their findings with the international scientific community or participate in joint research projects abroad. Government shutdown not only stifled U.S. research—it set back our foreign collaborators, too.
For science, perhaps that is the biggest problem with a government shutdown. So much of scientific research relies on trust. Scientists abroad trust that their U.S.-backed partners will be able to see a project through to the end. Conference coordinators trust that decorated American scientists will be able to present their findings at major meetings.
And federally funded researchers trust that the government won’t pull the plug on their work and send them back to square one.