Government Shutdown Slowing Medical Research In Boston And Beyond

A sign on Tuesday informs visitors to Boston’s Faneuil Hall, the nation’s oldest public meeting hall, that restrooms are closed as a result of the partial government shutdown. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

A sign on Tuesday informs visitors to Boston’s Faneuil Hall, the nation’s oldest public meeting hall, that restrooms are closed as a result of the partial government shutdown. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

I didn’t think I could get any more appalled by the partial federal government shutdown. Then I heard that its effects are reaching beyond national parks and immigration offices, to the sort of National Institutes of Health biomedical research that can potentially save lives.

The Wall Street Journal reported that nearly three-quarters of the NIH staff had been furloughed, and as a result, about 200 patients a week, manly cancer patients, would not be admitted to clinical trials there.

Here in Boston, we asked Dr. Amy Roberts, a cardiovascular geneticist and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, how the first day of the shutdown affected her. She normally spends about half her time seeing patients and the other half doing clinical research. Her response:

During the course of my day there were three instances when I had to do something with an NIH entity that could not be completed because of the government shutdown.

What starts out as an inconvenience adds up to significant delays in research and experimental treatments.

Next week I am due to go to a meeting organized in part by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the NIH. I had a question about the agenda for the meeting but no one was in the office.

One of my former trainees is due for renewal of an NIH-based loan repayment program for physician scientists. I need to submit an online letter of recommendation for him but the website is inactive due to the shutdown.

Finally, I was contacted last week to clarify drug dosing for an upcoming clinical trial and the email I sent today to answer the NIH’s question was met with the automatic reply below.

“Due to the absence of either an FY 2014 appropriation or Continuing Resolution for the Department of Health and Human Services, I am out of the office on furlough and I am not able to read or respond to your message. If you require immediate attention, please contact the NCATS Admin Help@mail.nih.gov.”

Every time this happens it means that something I should have gotten done today is deferred, which wastes time and slows efficiency and progress. The clinical trial I am working on to bring a new treatment to children born with a rare form of heart disease is on hold without any way to proceed until the government and thus the NIH is back to business. Multiply my experience by the thousands of researchers who also work with the federal government and what starts out as an inconvenience adds up to significant delays in research and experimental treatments for children and adults who need it most.

Readers in medical research, are you experiencing anything similar? Please share in the comments below.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Cabin G.

    Amazing. After twelve years of stress/ depression about my son, the Government showed me the Silver Lining of it all. I should be happy that my son developed cancer, at age two, prior to taking care of Americans no longer became a concern for our leaders.

  • Bharani Padmanabhan MD PhD

    And what did all the goody goody doctors do to prevent a shutdown that loomed for months? I looked but did not see any mass crowds protesting outside the US Capitol last Sunday. No lobbying or strong public statements by the AMA or other groups of doctors. No effort at all that I can see to get involved before the fact.

  • sleeperdvr

    I hope the Government shutdown shutters the NIH’s newly annouced sponsoring of a five year $20 million dollar reseach project awarded to the University of Pennsylvania researching the question “Why people still smoke” looking at social media and its contributions.
    Our limited reasearch dollars must be focused in in better ways such as drug trials, cardiovascular and cancer research the can potentially lead to new therapuetic breakthrough.
    Discovery by private industry is all but dead in this country as profits are prioritized. Merck just announced it is eliminating 8,500 jobs (mostly in research) to improve profit margin.
    The NIH has been curtailed with budget cuts in recent years. How could it have earmarked so much money on the smoking study that will lead to a few publications and NO LIVES CHANGED.
    I hope investigators like Dr Roberts write the NIH to allocate its money more wisely and criticize researchers that grab for Grants that at best reinforces our our knowledge but has no opportunity at innovation. If our reaserors don’t take this responsibility, congress will eliminate the NIH funding altogether.

  • Jerry Wickey

    Why is the president being so stubborn? Why can’t he just give in on his own personal opinion of what health care should be for the good of the American people?

  • Mike C

    Rather than say it is Republicans or Democrats at FAULT…… I will simply say that GOVERNMENT in the good ole U.S. of A is broken… It needs a complete overhaul ..

    English fled England to get away from a tyrannical government ( in their eyes) to have more freedom .. They came to America to start a new..

    Ronald Regan broke the Unions …. He said no group should be able to hold masses of the United States people hostage so to speak and that it was ANTI American..

    Well…. What exactly is it that the U.S. government be them Republican or Democratic are doing to the United States people as we speak… ? ? ? Are they not exhibiting the same ANTI – AMERICAN sentiments stated by Regan in comparison to the Unionized groups in the airports ? ?

    Why do you think it’s ILLEGAL for Police ( unionized or not ) to stage a walk out to prove their point ? Because the AMERICAN PEOPLE depend on them for their very safety …..

    But it’s O.K. for the government to stage a walkout ? ?

    We have become complacent , ignorant , lazy impotent to do or say anything to achieve change .. So long that everyone has their cellular devices , their internet , their fast food , their coffee , etc … They / WE just don’t seem to care …

    Our fore-fathers must be rolling over in their graves…. I can’t recall any of them pointing fingers , rather they argued through and got the job done FOR THE PEOPLE …..

  • Joanne Kennedy

    I hate to trot out the old standard but the GOP just keep proving over and over again they only care about children who are in utero.

    • Jerry Wickey

      Why is the president being so stubborn? Why can’t he just give in on his own ideal of what health care should be for the good of the American people?

  • TarbellSteffens

    All due respect, never mind parks and passports… every additional day a child, or anyone, has to wait to begin a potentially life-saving drug trial because of the obstinate Republican stooges in Congress is a disgrace.