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The Shutdown May Be Over, But It’s Still Hurting Public Health

By Tara Culp-Ressler

"The Shutdown May Be Over, But It’s Still Hurting Public Health"

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The government is back in business, now that Congress has passed a funding bill and President Obama has signed it. But that doesn’t mean the full impact of the shutdown is behind us. In fact, closing the federal government for two weeks dealt an enormous blow to the scientific community, and public health efforts could take a long time to recover from it.

While the government was shut down, researchers were forced to halt their ongoing projects. That may not seem like such a big deal — it was just two weeks, right? — but it actually represents a significant set-back for much of the research that was put on pause.

“This isn’t about a few people who can’t go to the labs like they’re on vacation or something. The whole research enterprise depends on operating 24/7,” Mary Woolley, who heads a nonprofit called Research!America that advocates for science-related agencies, explained to Politico.

For instance, federal researchers have warned that the shutdown will force them to kill thousands of lab mice that are used for projects related to diseases like cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. Many of those animals need to be constantly monitored by scientists, so there’s no salvaging them now that researchers have been locked out of their labs for 16 days. Without being watched over, mice can also quickly procreate and create overcrowding that will force facilities like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to eliminate some of them.

And even when it comes to the research projects that didn’t rely on lab animals, unexpected time away can undermine potential breakthroughs. “Some of the shutdown’s impacts on research may be impossible to undo. Lost data will never be recovered and ephemeral field events will go undocumented,” Science Insider notes.

Federal agencies will also be sluggish for weeks because they’re currently backlogged. It will take the NIH extra time to wade through the grant applications that piled up while employees weren’t allowed to check their email. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will need to start up their influenza monitoring program again, and they’ll need to scramble to make up for lost time as flu season intensifies. The CDC is also behind when it comes to monitoring and analyzing a recent outbreak of salmonella that’s started to display signs of antibiotic resistance.

Even though researchers are happy to be headed back to work, they’re also worried about the atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding federally-supported science projects. The deal that re-opened the government set up the country for another budget battle in January. Considering that the public health sector has already been hampered by sequester cuts, it’s hard to stay positive about the future. The so-called “shutdown shenanigans” probably won’t inspire the next generation of scientists to go work for the U.S. government.

“Would you go work for someone where the funding is squishy?” Georges Benjamin, the executive director for the American Public Health Association, pointed out.

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