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Science & Technology

With Government Shut Down, Science Idles


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. If you go to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and you want to know how the flu season is progressing, you get this warning: The information on this website may not be up to date. The transactions submitted via the website may not be processed and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.

With the federal shutdown in its fifth day, you hear a lot of news about national parks and war memorials being closed. Here's a great photo op. But you don't hear much about important effects the shutdown is having on research, how experiments have been put on hold or cancelled, field work put off for another season. How, as above with the flu season here, the people who track it are off the job.

How will we know how the flu is spreading or how bad the season is or is it coming from one country to another? But flying under the radar, research is not getting done. Joining me now is Matthew Hourihan. He's director of the research and development budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. Welcome to the program.

MATTHEW HOURIHAN: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: What does this shutdown apply to in the science community?

HOURIHAN: Yeah, well, so there are three categories of research, I think, that are getting impacted by the shutdown. First, you've got the intramural researchers, and those are the folks, you know, government scientists doing work in government-owned labs. And those are the folks that are getting sent home, you know, where the doors are closed and research projects have to stop.

Second category would be extramural researchers. And those are the folks at, say, universities that receive grants from the National Science Foundation and other agencies. And those folks, it's going to be a little bit of a mixed bag. If you're a researcher at a university and you've already received your research award, and you've received your funding, for the most part you can go ahead and continue on your research.

But if you're waiting to apply for a new grant or if you're waiting for, you know, you've gotten your award, but you're waiting for the actual funding to come through, you know, your work's going to be delayed. And then the third category is contractors, and contractors seem to be a really mixed bag. For the most part, federal contractors, and these would include the jet propulsion laboratory, the national labs, they have resources, budget resources that they can draw on, outside of kind of the normal appropriations process.

And so they can stay open, although they're going to be on a limited timetable and it's kind of going to vary lab by lab and center by center, how much they'll be able to do and how much longer they'll be able to remain open.

FLATOW: What if you have Petri fulls of dishes everywhere with all kinds of stuff growing in it that has to be taken care of?

HOURIHAN: A lot of that work is going to have to stop, and this is definitely going to cause a lot of problems for research - well, in a number of areas, but in the life sciences in particular. If you're, you know, an intramural researcher and NIH and you've got, you know, something in that Petri dish that requires observation, you know, a lot of those folks, a lot of those projects are going to have to stop, so there are going to be some lost research results.

FLATOW: And same thing with lab animals, are you allowed to go in and feed them?

HOURIHAN: So lab animals - so there are actually a couple of exemptions in the shutdown and one of them is for maintenance of those animal populations. So even though a lot of the researchers at NIH have been sent home, there are staff on hand who are taking care of those animal populations and making sure that they're okay.

FLATOW: What about if you have a field experiment going and you know you have to collect data because it's a seasonal thing, maybe the leaves are changing, maybe the animals are doing something?

HOURIHAN: Yeah. Well, it depends on - if you're reliant on, you know, on federal infrastructure, you know, NOAA's scientific fleet, for example, you know, that means of getting to those locations is going to be curtailed or nonexistent, so that's definitely going to be a problem as well for scientists who have, you know, limited time to do their field work.

FLATOW: So that money is thrown out then.

HOURIHAN: Yeah. Yeah. In some cases it's definitely going to be a waste of money.

FLATOW: What about all the projects going on in space, in the planetary probes and things on Mars and stuff that's out there, you know, that it has to be maintained, the data? Will they still be collecting the data on that?

HOURIHAN: Yes, they will, for the most part. You know, the Hubble, the Mars Rover, those are - all those items are going to remain in operation, collecting the data. The problem is that there's not going to be anybody on the ground analyzing the data that they're bringing in. But those - all of those kinds of, you know, research instruments and whatnot are classified as government property and there's an exemption for, you know, for maintaining those.

What will stop in the space realm, for the most part, is a lot of development activities for future missions. There was a lot of concern that the MAVEN mission, which was going to be a Mars orbiter scheduled to launch here next month, actually, there were some concerns that they were going to miss their launch window because of the slowdown, although it just was recently announced that they're going to be allowed to go forward.

So a lot of the, you know, a lot of the NASA development activities, they're a mix of contractor and public employee activities, so the contractors, in that sense, or in that area, they can go ahead and keep doing their work, if they've got the resources to drawn on, they don't need, you know, immediate oversight or interaction with federal employees. But on the federal side, those folks, for the most part, aren't going to be able to pursue their work.

FLATOW: Does there get to be any tipping point where if you stay away just too long, a lot of other things get affected?

HOURIHAN: I mean, I don't know if there's really (technical difficulties) project by project. Obviously the longer this goes on, the more problematic it's going to be. You know, if it gets to a point where we're, you know, a month, two months down the road and then we're still in the middle of a shutdown, I mean you may have to start thinking about, you know, if there are particle accelerators out there that may need to be shut down or, you know, other kinds of, you know, more, you know, more dramatic steps like that.

But, you know, for the time being, I mean a lot of those big dramatic steps, you know, aren't really, I think, under consideration quite, you know, just yet, but definitely as time goes on, you know, it's going to be more problematic.

FLATOW: There's one story that got prominence about kids at the NIH not getting, starting their cancer treatments.

HOURIHAN: That's right. So NIH, they have a clinical center. It takes in about 200 patients a week and it performs research on new treatments for cancer, for a great many other areas. And so folks, you know, patients that are already enrolled at the clinical center, they're going to continue getting their treatment. You know, things shouldn't change much for them. But NIH does have to turn away new patients.

So it ends up being about 200 a week. And you know, there's, you know, over time certainly this could add up to some pretty big numbers and that's definitely one of the more heartbreaking aspects of this story.

FLATOW: That's one of the things I meant by the tipping point, where it's just going to be - stuff's going to piling up and money's going to be wasted on research that, you know, is going to go bad in laboratories and stuff like that.

HOURIHAN: That's right, yeah. That's absolutely right.

FLATOW: All right. Matthew, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us today.

HOURIHAN: All right. Thank you.

FLATOW: Matthew Hourihan is director of research and development budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.