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.

Sorry, we are closed. (Free Photo via Stockvault)

Free photo: courtesy Stockvault/Allan Toft Pedersen

I have earlier talked about how biomedical research in the US, so long a strong force for addressing existing and emerging threats to national and global health, has already been deeply impacted by the sequestration process that has imposed indiscriminate, across-the-board budget cuts. The nation’s elected officials have evinced a strange inability to understand the depth and breadth of the crisis, and reach a reasonable budget agreement – putting aside ideological differences – in order to sustain crucial funding for biomedical research. However, partisan politicking continues to take precedence over the essential work of governing the country. And today, on the first day of the new Federal fiscal year, the US government is experiencing a shutdown. None of the regular Appropriations Bills, which provide funding for most of the government, have been enacted.

There are many visible signs of the shutdown this morning, such as the closure of the National Parks across the country and the Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC, the much-discussed stoppage of the Panda Cam in the National Zoo; but barely visible or not are the more serious negative ramifications for people who have friends and families working for the Federal government. The Washington Post this morning posted a nine plus list of barely visible, but painful impacts of the shutdown, which include:

  • Paycheck delays or stoppages for >2 million federal workers.
  • Possible disruption of benefits to millions of veterans in case of the shutdown lasting more than 2 weeks.
  • Possible disruption of disability benefits to veterans and others, since Veterans Appeal Board would be closed and Social Security administration stuff would be on furlough.
  • Annual seasonal influenza program of the CDC, including monitoring, will be halted.
  • Cessation of some food-safety operations.
  • Possible cessation of nutritional programs for women, infants and children, after a week of shutdown.
  • Hindrances to the financing for small businesses.
  • The tourist trade is already taking a hit; read some of the experiences of the people affected in the Facebook page of the National Public Radio.
  • Cessation of Head Start programs for hundreds of kids.
  • Inability of businesses to access the E-Verify system to check the immigration status of potential hires.
  • Bureau of Land Management will stop issuing permits for oil and gas companies on public lands.

The only aspects of the Federal government that will continue to operate are those that are funded by permanent (mandatory) spending authority (this, fortunately for students, includes Direct Student Loans) or dedicated funding streams, as well as those deemed ‘essential activities’ (for the protection of life or property). Many federal employees arrived at work this morning only to find out they are “not essential” and, therefore, were sent home. The furloughed Federal employees would qualify for unemployment benefits, but those benefits would likely not reach Federally contracted private firms. The employees performing ‘essential activities’ are also expected to substantially lose on their paychecks.

This morning, via an institutional email, I was made aware of certain extremely worrisome details regarding this government shutdown. Here they are (italics for emphasis, mine):

Department of Health and Human Services (NIH, CDC, and others): 73% of NIH staff will be furloughed. Some of those who remain will continue providing inpatient and outpatient care for current patients of the NIH Clinical Center, though no new patients will be admitted unless deemed medically necessary by the director. NIH staff also will maintain their animal stock, security to safeguard NIH facilities, research infrastructure, and data. Most FDA monitoring programs and CDC outbreak programs, including seasonal influenza work, will cease operation. This morning, the website for the Morbidity Mortality Weekly Report, an important communication organ of the CDC, has this ominous notice put up: “Due to the lapse in government funding, only web sites supporting excepted functions will be updated unless otherwise funded. As a result, the information on this website may not be up to date, the transactions submitted via the website may not be processed, and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.

The Grants.gov portal will be up and running so applications can continue to be submitted, but no action will be taken until appropriations are enacted. Many staff at the agency will be furloughed, so they will not be available to provide routine administrative support services. The Payment Management System will continue processing grant drawdown requests. However, if a notice of grant award includes restrictive terms and conditions, or if a drawdown request triggers one of the Payment Management System edit checks and/or the drawdown limit controls, a drawdown will not be possible.

National Science Foundation: Virtually all staff are to be furloughed, with those remaining responsible for the protection of life and property. NSF will be sending notices to awardees informing them that payments won’t be made during the disruption, but that research that doesn’t require federal employee intervention may proceed.

Department of Energy: There are exceedingly few employments in most DOE R&D offices that will be exempt from the funding disruption. A handful of DOE staff will remain at the Office of Science and its national labs, and at the offices for efficiency, renewables, nuclear power and fossil energy; none would remain at ARPA-E. Unsurprisingly given the agency’s mission, a few hundred staff within the National Nuclear Security Administration are exempt.

NASA: International Space Stations support and operational satellite missions will continue, but pre-launch development activities will mostly halt. As with other agencies, no new contracts or grants will be issued, and apparently citizens will not have “access to the NASA website” (a message to that effect already appears at the NASA website).

USDA Research, Education, and Economics (website is also shut down): Just about all staff at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service will be furloughed, though the Agricultural Research Service will retain several hundred staff to safeguard research animal populations, IT infrastructure, and other assets.

Because of the “Pay Our Military Act” signed by President Obama late Monday night, active-duty military service members, plus civilians and contractors with the departments of Defense and Homeland Security who support active-duty troops and guardsmen, will continue to be paid. However, an eloquent opinion piece at the Talking Points Memo today points out how the shutdown indirectly hurts the members of the military anyway.

At the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) many of the activities related to the Affordable Care Act will continue, including coordination between Medicaid and the marketplace, as well as insurance rate reviews and assessment of a portion of insurance premiums used on medical services. In addition, the Medicare Program will continue largely without disruption. Other non-discretionary activities including those of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan activities also will continue. States will have funding for Medicaid and for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). However, that CMS will not have funding for health care fraud and abuse strike force teams resulting in the cessation of their operations.

The current agency contingency plans are available from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

I can only hope that reason and sanity will return soon and these issues will be resolved. My heart goes out to those millions of families who will inevitably suffer severe financial hardships because of this situation.