How The Shutdown Puts NASA, The NIH, And Scientific Research At Long-Term Risk

Kids being turned away from cancer-drug trials is just the beginning of the deleterious effects of the government shutdown on science, technology, and health research.

The government shutdown, which has led to some sad outcomes and silly behavior, also has big implications for the science and technology communities.

And while the startup community is trying to maintain a stiff upper lip or even a sense of humor about the whole thing, things will get worse the more the shutdown drags on.

NASA is one of the most prominent tech entities affected by the shutdown; of around 18,000 employees--exact numbers are not available, since NASA's website is down--only about 600 urgent mission- or life-critical personnel remain at their desks. As CNN points out, this could have some long-term impacts for orbiting craft like the Hubble Space Telescope. Operated in collaboration with international partners, the HST has funding to keep telescope operations running normally for a while. But if anything goes wrong, such as a software or hardware glitch, the HST may have to be commanded to power off into safe mode. That will buy it some time, but depending on the issue, it may not be able to turn it back on again soon. This means it'll shut down observations--wasting tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer investment, and impacting global science.

Similarly, the Hubble successor James Webb Telescope is busy undergoing critical tests that involve cooling it to extremes; during the shutdown, the tests have to wait. If the delay is long, the JWT will have to be warmed up, which could easily push back its launch window and--inevitably--bump up the mission's cost.

Wired reports on the shocking impact on biomedical research, which of course has implications for long-term health innovations. Working (or rather, not working) in an un-named lab, a scientist is quoted as saying:

Scientific research is not like turning on and off an assembly line. Experiments are frequently long-term and complicated. They involve specific treatments and specific times. You can’t just stop and restart it. You’ve probably just destroyed the experiment.

However you may feel about medical research involving animals, this scientist has also not been allowed to feed his lab rats, and this means they may soon have to be killed.

Even more shocking is news from the National Institutes of Health, which are being forced to turn away new patients from clinical trials of drugs that could lead to curing or preventing diseases and death. To put a human face on this affair, the Washington Post reported that this would affect about 200 people a week who'd normally join trials, of which 30 would be children--10 of them with cancer. Science notes that about eight NIH staff were scheduled to speak at a major AIDS vaccine conference in Europe next week, and suggests they'll have to cancel.

Separately, a White House meeting on big data, the tech buzzword of the day, has been canceled this week. And in the bigger picture, there is official concern that the shutdown makes American academics, companies, and institutions less attractive internationally, which could have long-term impacts on productivity, collaborative projects and, ultimately, competitiveness and cold, hard profits.

[Image: Flickr user Robert Clarke]

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