U.S. Nobel Prize Winners: The Government Shutdown Is Threatening Scientific Discovery

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Three American Nobel Prize winners are speaking out against the government shutdown, arguing that it represents a threat to future scientific breakthroughs. The scientists — James Rothman of Yale University, Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley, and Thomas C. Suedhof of Stanford University — won a Nobel Prize on Monday. But they say they wouldn’t have been able to do the work that led to those awards without the government support they received for earlier research.

Rothman, Suedhof, and Schekman were awarded their Prize for discovering how chemicals produced by cells are transported from one part of the body to another. That discovery eventually allowed insulin to be made from yeast cells. “Particularly now people need to be reminded that that investment is being eroded and suspended because of government inaction,” said Schekman in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.

Suedhof added that scientific research in America has been “imperiled” by budget cuts. Even before the government shut down, the medical field faced big across-the-board cuts as a result of sequestration.

Deep sequester cuts have led to dwindling research grants, and that’s impacting the majority of researchers in the chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, computer science, and social science fields. An August survey of 3,700 scientists found that nearly half of all respondents had to fire someone or planned to fire someone because there were fewer grants to go around. About 70 percent of the scientists said they received less public funding in 2013 than they did in 2010, over half had to turn away promising young researchers, and as many as 20 percent said they would consider continuing their research in another country.

Prize winner Rothman pointed out that cutting back research grants today could have detrimental snowball effect on the important discoveries of tomorrow. He used his own past work as an example, saying, “I had five years of failure before the first initial success. That kind of [government] support, there’s less of it now. And that’s a pressing national issue.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of America’s most important public scientific research organizations, had its budget cut by five percent (or $1.7 billion) this year alone by sequestration. And now, the current government shutdown is forcing the NIH to turn cancer patients away from clinical trials.