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.