Not only are government researchers barred from their own labs during the government shutdown, but they cannot travel anywhere else, either.

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who were in San Francisco, Calif., attending a meeting on cytokines found their trips unexpectedly cut short when the government began shutting down at midnight on October 1.  As soon as the news broke, NIH officials told the travelling researchers to come back immediately “by any means necessary."

The organizers quickly rescheduled the meeting so that all the NIH employees could give their talks before the agency officially shut down. “They told us giving a talk after that was a federal crime,” says one NIH immunologist who asked that her name not be used, as she is not authorized to speak to the press.

But government researchers attending other upcoming meetings will not be so lucky. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) is scheduled to give a keynote talk at an upcoming conference on AIDS vaccines in Barcelona. If the government has not reopened by the time the meeting starts on October 7, he and other NIH vaccine researchers will not be able to attend.

“It is frustrating, it is embarrassing,” says the NIH immunologist. Organizers at the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) meeting in San Francisco this week similarly had to scramble to replace speakers from the NIH and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Approximately 10 percent of the speakers at the meeting are government employees.

The organizers were able to find replacements for many of the government speakers. At one session on the difficulty of detecting resistance to carbapenem antibiotics in the lab, Stephen Jenkins, a clinical microbiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, replaced Brandi Libmago of the CDC. He had 24 hours to prepare his talk. “I put together the lecture during the wee hours yesterday morning,” he says, but was able to use many of Libmago’s slides.

But even as Congress deliberates, science must go on. As IDSA president David Relman of Stanford University in California said in the introduction to the opening plenary, “Despite the shutdown, patients continue to suffer from infectious diseases.”

With reporting by Sarah Zhang and Erika Check Hayden.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on October 4, 2013.