For a while, I have been following and writing on the terrible science funding crunch situation in the US as a result of sequestration, whose ill effects were compounded by the period of government shutdown. I heard the alarm bells at the end of 2010 (when my blog was still a part of Nature Blogs); it scared me to find out how much even the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) seemed to agree with me on this. The danger became imminent in the fall of 2012, when a legislative alert from my professional body, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), laid out in great details the alarming impact of sequestration – an indiscriminate budget cut imposed on on science and public health programs, amongst other things. And going against all good sense, the sequester was implemented at the beginning of March, 2013; at that time, I caught a glimpse of the horrendous future impacts of the self-inflicted trauma that was the sequester, on the nation’s well-being.
Last fall, I wrote with a great deal of concern about the deleterious effect of the sequestration on Federally-funded Biomedical Research in the United States, including real-life examples of scientists in jeopardy highlighted in the Huffington Post. In another post, I pointed out how sequestration-mandated cuts to funding from the US National Science Foundation (NSF), coupled with the ill-conceived government shutdown, were seriously imperiling invaluable and irreplaceable scientific research. Although the shutdown was rescinded by the third week of October 2013, it left behind grave concerns about long-term fallouts, especially in less visible areas associated with scientific research in this country.
US citizens amongst readers and well-wishers of this blog, here is an important legislative alert via the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), of which I am a member. I have shared previous legislative alerts with you – to inform you and enable your participation in this nation’s democratic processes, so that your voice reaches your elected representatives. This time is no different, and this is as crucial as before. I received it via email this morning (the emphasis on the links by bold-face is mine); please read and act.
So… It was done. Since late last night, the shutdown has been over, the government offices re-opened this morning, and Federal workers are back at work. The worked-out deal in its final form provides for appropriations at the current (post-sequester) spending levels for all Federal agencies through January 15, 2014 (which includes back pay to Federal workers who had been put on furlough), and extends the Treasury’s borrowing authority through February 7. The leaders of the legislative bodies have agreed to work towards a financial framework leading to subsequent tax and entitlement reform legislation. Meanwhile, economists have come up with a figure of US $24 billion as a cost of the 16-day shutdown kabuki theater, made up entirely of lost government productivity and revenue, and even then, the nation’s Legislative has simply kicked the can down the road, to the beginning of next year. We may very well find ourselves again in a similar mess come January or February, if broader reforms are not undertaken and if sequestration isn’t altered or repealed.
As the US government shutdown and the consequent budgetary stalemate rolls into its third week, I contemplate that I am, indeed, one of the fortunate ones – in that my work, in a private educational institution, does not depend directly upon the US Federal government, and therefore, has not been hampered to a significant extent, yet, although some collaborative work with an NIH division has been put on limbo. Many of my friends, some of whom work at the NIH, have not been so fortunate – just what I was so apprehensive about. Many of them have been put on furlough, which accounts for a whopping 73% of NIH employees. Some who were made provisionally ‘essential’, so that they could have time to wrap up their already-started work, have been under intense scrutiny, and are being rendered ‘non-essential’ (therefore, furloughed) as time passes. (Update: Read Sara Reardon‘s report in Nature News on how research work at the NIH is on the path of a slow decay, and how researchers are suffering in unexpected ways.)
I have written earlier about the peril that Italian Biomedical research finds itself in, due to extreme, immoderate and unreasonable restrictions on animal experimentation that the Italian Parliament approved recently. Via a missive from the Basel Declaration society (Disclaimer: I am an individual signatory to and supporter of the Basel Declaration), I learnt this morning about a PETITION (in Italian, and in English) that several prominent Italian Biomedical Scientists have launched, directed at European Commission officials and copied to several relevant ministers in Italy.
I am including here the text of the English version of the petition. Please read, support and share it. The place to put your name, email, and optionally, location and degree, is to the right side of the petition text (see the petition page link above). The field-names are unfortunately written in Italian even in the English page, but they are not difficult to understand. Upon signing the petition, you’d receive an email with a validation link which you must remember to click in order for your signature to be registered.
Please stand with these scientists for the sake of not only saving Italian scientific research, but also maintaining the integrity and continuity of biological research as a whole throughout the world.
Dr. Janez Potočnik
European Commissioner for the Environment
Directorate General for the Environment
Dr. Susanna Louhimies
Policy Officer- Use of animals for scientific purposes
Directorate General for the Environment
B- 1049 Bruxelles
Minister of Health of Italy
On. Beatrice Lorenzini
Minister of EU Affairs of Italy
On. Enzo Moavero Milanesi
Minister of the University and Scientific Research of Italy
On. Maria Chiara Carrozza
Subject: Implementation in Italy of EU Directive 63-2010 on the protection of animals used for scientific research in Italy. Art. 13, Law n. 96/2013.
Dear Dr. Potočnik:
We are writing to share our concerns on the criteria approved by the Italian Parliament concerning the implementation of the European Directive 2010/63 on the protection of laboratory animals in Italy.
As a scientific community we have approved and supported the decision to generate an harmonized approach shared by the whole Community. The European discussion has lasted almost a decade and has led to a well-balanced compromise between the demands of animal welfare and the interests of research.
This well balanced compromise has been challenged by the Italian Parliament with
severe risks for the future of biomedical research in the country.
We ask you to help re-balance the discussion by warning the Italian Government that the Parliament has approved decisions is in violation of art. 2 of Directive EU 63-2010. If transformed into a legislative decree by the Government, those decisions will make the Italian law much more severe and restrictive than the EU Directive.
Specifically we ask you to convince the Italian Government to implement in Italy the EU Directive 63-2010 as the UE Parliament and Commission have licensed it. This will require the rejection of the Art. 13 of the national law of implementation of the EU Directives for 2013 (Legge di delegazione europea 2013, n. 96, published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale, Serie generale n. 194, 20/08/2013, into force since 04/09/2013).
The different paragraphs of art. 13 of the above mentioned law contains a severe limitation to the use of cats, dogs and non-human primates for basic research, limitations in the re-use of animals of any nature previously employed in procedures classified as of “moderate” severity, prohibition of research on non-anaesthetized animals, limitation in the use of genetically modified animals, a ban of animal experiments on xenotransplantation and drug addiction, a ban of animal breeding centers in the national territory.
We trust that the strict control and ethical review mechanisms proposed by the EU Directive are the most effective mechanisms to prevent unnecessary and unjustified pain and suffering for animals. The Italian scientific community is very supportive of this strict review process but opposes any total bans, as fully inappropriate to regulate the complexity of biomedical research, and liable to damage it severely without adding significant benefits to animal welfare.
In the interest of biomedical research in Italy, we ask you to follow our recommendations and help us obtain a new and well balanced Italian animal welfare legislation, in line with the European directive.
Fabio Benfenati, Professor of Physiology, University of Genova
Giovanni Berlucchi, Professor Emeritus of Physiology, University of Verona
Roberto Caminiti, Professor of Physiology, University of Rome SAPIENZA, Chair, Committee of Animals in Research (CARE), Federation of the European Neuroscience Societies (FENS)
Enrico Cherubini, Professor of Physiology, SISSA, Trieste, President of the Italian Society of Neuroscience (SINS)
Francesco Clementi, Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology, University of Milan, and National Council of Research, Milan
Gaetano Di Chiara, Professor of Pharmacology, University of Cagliari
Silvio Garattini, Director, Institute for Pharmacological Research Mario Negri, Milan
Jacopo Meldolesi, Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology, University Vita-Salute San Raffaele, Milan, past President of the Italian Federation of Life Sciences
Giacomo Rizzolatti, Professor Emeritus of Physiology, University of Parma
Carlo Reggiani, Professor of Physiology, University of Padua, President of the Italian Physiological Society
Piergiorgio Strata, Professor Emeritus of Physiology, University of Turin
On the heels of my previous post on the severe impact of the shutdown on US biomedical research community and the general populace, comes this statement from the NIH. I present it here in its entirety.
I am not a citizen of the United States. I come from a country where political demonstrations against the government are commonplace, and work-strikes (called ‘bandh‘ in the vernacular, literally meaning ‘cessation’) organized by trade unions and/or political parties are an accepted means of protest. But it is completely inconceivable to me that in a democracy, the entire economy, the governance of the entire country is being held hostage by a small, vocal, well-funded minority, who did not like the outcome of the last popular mandate. To me, this action seems utterly irresponsible and undermining the whole democratic process. Anyway, I would not like to use this space to discuss politics as such, but I want to put on record what I have learnt of the impact this unseemly ‘government shutdown’ has on scientific research in the US.
A quick post this morning. In the Guardian, I came across (courtesy my friend and erstwhile NatureBlogs colleague, Dr. Austin Eliott) this Open Letter to the Spanish Prime Minister from a Spanish researcher, an Astrophysicist no less, whom the current circumstances have forced to leave Spain and take her trade elsewhere. Dr. Amaya Moro-Martín’s letter (translated English text in the Guardian), written with brilliant, acerbic wit, paints a tragic picture of the status of scientific research in that country and how it is mired in countless bureaucratic impediments. She contends that this, along with an egregious lack of funding, is what has forced her and many others (link in the published essay) to abandon Spain in search of better futures elsewhere.
It is, indeed, a sad, sad situation. Dr. Moro-Martín’s position at the Spanish National Research Council bore the name of Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934), a Nobel Laureate pathologist and neuroscientist from Spain, who had transformed the study of the nervous system. I am sure he would have been devastated by this turn of events. As Dr. Moro-Martín wrote, what is even more galling is the resounding silence from the Mariano Rajoy government on this predicament of the Spanish scientists.
In the comments, at least two individuals have pointed out that a very similar situation exists in Portugal and Greece. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well at all for the future of science in the EU.
I wish Dr. Moro-Martín all the very best for her transition to NASA. A transcontinental move, with family, isn’t the easiest thing to do, and having to start a professional life almost from scratch and rebuild relationships can be a daunting task. A distinguished researcher of her stature should be welcomed with open arms in any scientific community. In that respect, one niggling question that continues to bother me: is the situation with science funding much better in the US currently? I hope Dr. Moro-Martín is not stepping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.
Many of you know that I have been extremely concerned about the continuing deleterious effect of the sequestration on Federally-funded Biomedical Research in the United States. I have tried to highlight how Science funding and the future prosperity of this nation have been put on the line via drastic spending cuts. A piece of heartening news came through last month in which a proposed Senate Bill sought to boost the NIH budget. I wrote at that time: “I hope the American political leadership wakes up soon to the loss of intellectual capital they are incurring due to the sequester.”
Fat chance of that, it seems, as time passes on. Today, in Huffington Post, noted political reporter Sam Stein wrote a long essay in which he exposed the ugly effects of the sequester already weighing heavy on scientific research in the US. He has interviewed real researchers in different universities whose invaluable research work is in clear and present danger of being shut down. As the essay goes on to say:
Over the past few months, The Huffington Post has set out to understand the breadth of these cuts. The roughly two dozen scientists and academic officials interviewed were naturally distraught over the impact sequestration is having on their own work and institutions. The nature of the business is to assume you’re on the cusp of a major breakthrough.
But beyond that, they shuddered at the damage being done to the field at large. Yes, they conceded, the NIH’s budget remains large at $29 billion. But without more investment, the nation’s role as an international leader in scientific research is at risk. Moreover, the money being cut now will have lasting damage, both economic and medical, as cures to diseases are left undiscovered and treatments left unearthed.
A lot of people were hoping for the benevolence of for-profit private parties to keep the research efforts afloat. But as Stein points out, it is not a viable proposition. The times have been so desperate that several scientists are actively considering the idea of setting up shop in other, more conducive countries where they can carry on their work unimpeded.
The saddest and most dire message that Stein has portrayed? This:
… (At the University of Virginia) Patrick Grant, an Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, said his lab was down to two researchers from a peak of a dozen. His federal funding ran out last year.
“I wouldn’t advise people to go into science,” he said. “I think it’s a tough career to follow. It’s not the career that I thought it was, or that it was for me a couple of years ago.”
Do go read the HuffPo piece. It is disheartening and reeks of despair, but it needs to be read and the message spread. They also have a project to record the experiences of real people affected by the sequester, and are asking for input from the reading public.