Whoops: Government Shutdown Cripples American Science

The Centers for Disease Control and the National Science Foundation are scrambling for solutions as the government shutdown cripples everything from flu mapping to Antarctic research.

Whoops: Government Shutdown Cripples American Science
[Image: Flickr user Daniel Parks]

The government shutdown has now passed the two-week mark, and millions of government employees have stopped receiving pay, agencies have stopped interacting with the public, American businesses can’t receive federal loans… and, in the process, American scientific prowess has been dealt a blow.


No More Flu Mapping

When the federal government went into furlough, the Center for Disease Control‘s weekly flu map project was deemed inessential. This meant that the best map of flu outbreaks, and the best source of verified data for influenza in the United States, was simply not available. Researchers and ordinary doctors waiting for the upcoming flu season saw one of their best tools disappearing.

Cloud-based medical records firm Athenahealth decided to jump into the fray by releasing their own flu analytics. Instead of using the CDC’s method of data mining from America’s hospitals and medical facilities, Athenahealth extrapolated flu-related trends from their own records and clients. Furthermore, they decided to make a weekly report out of it. Writing on the company’s blog, core analytics manager Matt Nix said, “As long as the CDC staff is in furlough, our athenaResearch team will continue to regularly examine flu-related data from our cloud-based network.”

Luckily, last week was not a bad flu week. Athenahealth’s records found no signs of significant flu outbreaks, an increased amount of visitors to primary care physicians receiving flu vaccinations (11.8%), and an average number of patients being treated for the flu. Athenahealth, which primarily works with insurers, extrapolated the data from records of 42 million patients served by their clients. Unfortunately, their flu study also shows the limits of private parties doing public health research using proprietary data: The Athenahealth report does not include patients who got flu vaccinations at pharmacies and uses diagnoses of flu rather than the CDC’s use of clinical symptoms, which delivers somewhat different results.

Meanwhile, the CDC has shut down work until the government reopens–with only a handful of employees remaining to protect the country from medical threats.

The CDC’s Salmonella Problem

The CDC’s shutdown is causing more immediate problems than the upcoming flu season. America is coping with a major salmonella outbreak.

Bacteria traced back to three poultry plants owned by Foster Farms have sickened 278 people nationwide as of press time, with approximately 42% of those cases requiring hospitalization. Worryingly, a number of these cases involve antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella.


Although CDC director of foodborne, waterborne, and environmental diseases Christopher Braden told industry publication Food Safety News that the shutdown was not impeding the salmonella investigation, he also noted that the size of the outbreak required the agency to suddenly deem 30 employees, previously furloughed, as “essential.” These employees have returned to the CDC to work on their PulseNet database and data-exchanging epidemiology systems.

The Federal Government’s Antarctica Problem

The National Science Foundation runs America’s scientific experiments in Antarctica and serves as a de facto landlord for many smaller countries looking to work on the continent–and operates one of the very few landable airstrips for thousands of miles. Antarctica is a wickedly difficult place to land a plane, and it just happens that the federal shutdown coincides with the prime season for flying into Antarctica. The government shutdown has essentially canceled the Antarctic research season… and, therefore, has crippled a number of long-term research projects which depend on annual data and cost millions upon millions of dollars to fund.

The NSF’s presence in Antarctica has been reduced to what they call “caretaker status.” A small (and undoubtedly lonely) skeleton staff will remain in Antarctica to maintain structures and equipment, but no research will be conducted. Among other countries, France and Italy rely on America’s McMurdo Research station.