The Government Shutdown: Why the Pipeline Matters

Much attention has been paid to the government shutdown that started last week.  Many of us heard heart-tugging stories on public radio about the NIH closing down new subject enrollment at its “House of Hope,” the clinical trial hospital on the NIH main campus.  These stories gave many people the impression that clinical research halted around the country when the federal government failed to approve a Continuing Resolution.

The reality is both less dramatic in the short term and more concerning for the long term.  For the most part, federally-funded projects at university campuses and hospitals are continuing as usual (or, the new “usual,” as reduced by sequestration), because the grants already awarded are like I.O.U.s from the government.  By and large, university researchers will keep spending on their funded grants, with the knowledge that reimbursement will come once the government re-opens for business. The universities and hospitals are, in a sense, acting like banks that loan the government money while waiting for these expenses to be reimbursed.

Also, many clinical trials are funded by the pharmaceutical industry.  So it is not the case that hospitals are closing their doors to research en masse.  But the long-term effects of a shutdown will have lasting and compounding effects on our science pipeline.  The U.S. federal government is the single largest funder of scientific research at American universities.  Each month, thousands of grant proposals are sent to the various federal funding agencies for consideration.

These in turn are filtered and assigned to peer review committees.  The whole process of review, scoring, and funding approval typically takes months, sometimes more than a year.

Under the terms of the shutdown, the staff who normally receive and triage these grant proposals are considered non-essential.  All but one of the federal grant on-line submission portals have been taken off-line.  So thousands of researchers who had been working for months to write grant proposals for funds needed to conduct the next generation of studies are now left wondering when it will be possible to submit for agency review.  Those studies hold the keys to future discoveries that could bring needed cures to the bedside, important products to the marketplace, and new jobs into the economy.

In addition, consider the plight of the researcher who was awarded a renewable grant three years ago that is due to expire.  These renewable grants are awarded with the proviso that the scientist may re-apply for ongoing funding in order to continue their important work.  During a federal shutdown, no continuation proposals can be reviewed, which will force some of these studies to shutdown and may even result in lab closures.

We simply cannot afford to put the march of progress on hold.  Patients need new therapies that can be developed only through clinical trials.  Clinical trials are based upon important pre-clinical studies using laboratory animals.  And basic science studies at the lab bench illuminate mechanisms which form the bases for pre-clinical research.  Federal funding is crucial at every step.

Earlier this week, it was announced that three researchers working at American universities won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.  All three have received during their careers substantial funding from U.S. government agencies to support their important work.  That’s what our taxpayer dollars do when used for science: achieve the highest levels of excellence for the benefit of people, animals, and the planet.  The federal government shutdown is a clog in the science pipeline that will have lasting effects because the opportunity costs associated with delayed research are enormous.

Suzanne M. Rivera is the Associate Vice President for Research at Case Western Reserve University, where she has broad responsibility for oversight of the research enterprise.  She also is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioethics. She is a regular contributor to Harvard Law School’s Bill of Health, where this piece originally appeared.

5 replies »

  1. Wait a minute. It’s obvious that these middle men are getting rich off this government-university grant business and probably denying desperately needed funding for people who did not apply. We need grant reform to cut out all this fat from the system. It obviously isn’t efficient since the US health system is third world in status. I believe for the sake of the world’s children we need to scrap this broken system and ram down the American people’s throats a new unpopular system that puts me in control and allows me (or my secretary) to decide who gets the money. In fact, I’m right on the brink of launching a website where you can log on and see how much money I might give you for your science grant (if it meets my criteria). But first, please disclose your personal tax returns for the past three years, and let me know what radio station you listen to, and the fat content of your favorite food, and if your dog Widget has pet insurance. Trust me, I’m with the government. Just kidding…come back later, my website is very busy right now handling three other people.

  2. Suzanne-

    Great explanation and overview of the impact of the shutdown on medical research. Could you speak a little bit about immediate repercussions due to the lag in funding renewal applications review?

    How might this affect current and incoming graduate students? Postdocs? What about longitudinal or cross-sectional studies?

  3. This whole situation is a mess! I would have thought that these so called “leaders” would be adults and would now have waited until the last minute to “throw a tantrum”. That’s what it boils down to…. One guy wants to be a communist dictator and the rest of them want to protest and it is really messing this country up.

  4. We have a circumstance wherein a few dozen political sociopaths comprising maybe 7% of Congress now hold 313 million people hostage to their uncompromising, naive nihilist demands. There is a lawful process for repealing or amending legislation you don’t like. This Tea Party extremist tactic is not it.