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in a similar mess come January or February, if broader reforms are not undertaken and if sequestration isn’t altered or repealed.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.)
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.