Scientists and the Shutdown
Published on October 1, 2013 by guest author: Eric Perkins

I'm going to ask the people who read this blog to think about a group of people they might not think about very often: scientists. I have to think about scientists every day because I am one and I work with academic scientists all over the U.S. and the rest of the world. But today, I was thinking about the scientists in the U.S. specifically. Today, I received the following message from a scientist at the NIH with whom I've been working. He sent it to me after I asked him some technical questions and then expressed my sympathy for his current plight due to the governent shut down. He had to send the response from his personal e-mail account because he was no longer able to use his NIH account:

"I'm really grateful for the kind words of solidarity. As research scientists, I feel like we work for pay that doesn't really match our huge number of years of post-graduate training and we don't enjoy all that great of job security, particularly lately. A major perk of the job has always been the feeling that society respects the personal sacrifices we've made in the interest of making life better for our fellow human beings. But this shutdown leaves me wrestling with the feeling that now even the respect I thought we got paid is some kind of illusion. I'm a short Metro ride away from Capitol Hill, so tomorrow I'm planning to make a picket sign reading 'Shutdowns stop cancer research' and 'Put me back to work fighting cancer' and walk around in front of Congress. It'll be nice to feel that thousands of fellow scientists undoubtedly have my back."

I've been immersed in academic science for nearly 18 years--13 of those years doing research. My colleague here communicates something that I'm not sure many non-scientists really appreciate. Academic and government scientists do not get paid a lot of money - at all - and they work very, very hard. When I was at the bench, I once tried to calculate my hourly wage based on my then 70-80 hour work week. I stopped when it was clear that I was making drastically less than the minimum wage. During one particularly difficult stretch of graduate school, I went nearly 6 months without a full day off. That's including weekends. But I, like many scientists, was driven by a goal, a personal mission. The mission is all most scientists have to keep them going, and the current government shutdown is keeping many scientists from their personal missions.

I have the impression - and maybe I'm wrong - that if every scientist in this country magically disappeared this instant, it would take a long time for the general populace to notice. If all the plumbers instantly disappeared, everyone would instantly notice. As they should. Plumbers are incredibly important and I think they earn every penny they make. If all the plumbers AND all the scientists disappeared, it would be completely understandabl3 if everyone focused on the plumbers. But when everyone gets amoebic dysentery from all the bad plumbing, those scientists are going to be really missed, too.

My point - and I do have one - is that even though the average person may not think about or interact with a scientist on a daily basis, they're important. This shut down makes us feel unimportant, and it is having an immediate detrimental effect on thousands of researchers.

How could a shutdown affect scientists at the NIH so quickly? Let's take freezers. Biologists and biomedical researchers keep all of their most important samples in -80C freezers. Nearly every lab has at least one. Each freezer can hold years - if not decades - worth of work. Thousands of man hours. Hundreds of thousands to millions research dollars. All in freezers with relatively fragile motors. The organization I work for has six -80 freezers, and I would say that one breaks down every 3-4 months. We have multiple alarms that let multiple people know when this happens and action is immediately taken to transfer our important cell stocks to back-up space. Now let's extrapolate. The NIH is a huge, sprawling campus. I conservatively estimate that there are at least 400-500 -80 freezers housed within its walls. If one of my organization's freezers breaks down every few months, I believe it's fair to say that at least one -80 freezer breaks down at the NIH every day. As of today, there is no one there to save those samples. The scientists have literally been locked out. The e-mail address to which the freezer alarms were probably sent have been blocked. Some lab very likely lost years worth of work today. If not today, then tomorrow, and every other day for as long as the shutdown lasts. Once those samples have thawed, they are gone forever, because no scientist can afford to repeat work in this age of ultra-competitive publishing.

So maybe you still can't quite sympathize with the scientists. How about kids with cancer? The following quotes come from an NIH statement sent out before the shutdown last night:

"The NIH operates a world class hospital called the NIH Clinical Center, where every patient is on a research protocol. If the government is shut down, the Clinical Center will assure the care of patients already enrolled in clinical studies, but it will not enroll new patients in any of the 1,437 studies now under way. The reduced hospital staff would be focused on taking care of patients already enrolled. Included in the 1,437 protocols are 497 clinical trials, which will study a new drug or device. Of these, 255 are studying treatments for cancer. Fifty of those involve children with cancer."

OK, doesn't sound disastrous, but that is followed by:

"NIH activities that cease under a shutdown:
          · All NIH grant review, awards and program management
          · The admission of new patients at the NIH Clinical Center (unless deemed medically necessary by the NIH Clinical Center Director)
          · Initiation of new protocols at the NIH Clinical Center

The bold lettering is mine. These "protocols" are potentially life-saving experiments, and they can take months to years to prepare. They have tight budgets and tight time lines. Any protocols that are not initiated during the shutdown would very likely be derailed much longer than the shutdown itself, if not forever. Hence, sick kids will get sicker. Some may die. I don't want to play the dead cancer kid card, but it's a legitimate concern, and not one I've seen taken seriously in the media.

And let's not even talk about the CDC. Cross your fingers that no major contagious diseases break out in the near future, because we're screwed if they do.

So what's my point? I want everyone be aware of the repercussions of this shutdown on more than just national parks (which are certainly important, but not quite life's-work-will-be-lost important or people-with-curable-cancer-will-die important). Write your senators and representatives, be they Democrats or Republicans. Tell them to stop putting the wants of a few up against the needs of many. Also, hug a scientist if given the opportunity. Things are a little rough right now. 

Eric J. Perkins is a molecular biologist and father of three. He lives in the Boston 'burbs, and what little free time he has is spent listening to music, reading, and writing about music and reading.
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