Petar Todorov | Lab Notes
Gumming up the works
Published: Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 01:10
By now, we’re a week deep into the government shutdown that started on Oct. 1. Many memorials in Washington, D.C. have been fenced off. The live stream panda cam at the National Zoo is gone until further notice. So, what exactly happens to science and technological innovation while Congress takes time to decide on a budget?
First of all, space exploration has been taking a hit. Over 90 percent of NASA’s employees are at home. However, it’s not all bad news. The International Space Station is still supported. Its astronauts are alive and well. (They’re perhaps tweeting a bit more frequently to fill their time while most of their terrestrial support staff is furloughed.)
Curiosity, the SUV-sized Mars rover that touched down last year is still up and running. This is because Curiosity is actually run by the Jet Propulsion Lab, a contractor that is paid by the California Institute of Technology.
Sadly, not all is rosy among scientists studying the red planet. Until the end of last week, there was considerable anxiety among the team hoping to launch the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) probe. The spacecraft has already been built and tested; however, it can only be launched in the brief period from Nov. 18 until Dec. 7, during which the orbits of both Earth and Mars are closest. If this time frame is missed, the two planets drift too far apart, and MAVEN can’t reach its destination. (The next opportunity for a launch would be in 2016.) Luckily, the project has been saved through a loophole: MAVEN will be sent up, as scheduled, to replace a satellite currently orbiting Mars; its function is essential for communicating with both the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, making it a necessity under the Anti-Deficiency Act.
Back on Earth, the troubles caused by the shutdown are much greater. Some even expose U.S. citizens and the world to environmental threats and pathogens. Nearly 70 percent of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is not working. Surprisingly, the parts deemed non-essential to the organization are the ones that track foodborne illness and inspect the Biosafety Level 3 and 4 facilities working with the riskiest pathogens. Furthermore, on the brink of flu season, the CDC group in charge of collecting data about national influenza outbreaks is furloughed, meaning any disease tracking will only happen at the local and state level. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) itself is only running at 65 percent, without doing food safety inspections or checking out imports. However, FDA drug approval programs are still up and running because they are funded by industry fees.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — a body that carries out its own studies, provides scientific tools and funds life sciences researchers at universities like Tufts — is also largely hampered, now operating at a measly 27 percent of its workforce. PubMed, the search engine for scientific literature, displays a cautionary message warning users that the validity of articles presented may not be up to par. BLAST and GenBank , two DNA alignment and search tools, are also flashing a similar box of text on their page.
Of course, these are only slight nuisances in the world of research. Worse yet, currently incomplete, time-sensitive research in NIH laboratories has had to shut down, meaning it must be started anew when scientists return. Cancer patients willing to take part in experimental therapies are also being turned away.
Without a doubt, the current furlough will not only hinder scientific development, but also destroy efforts that have been initiated and paid for already. Thus, money will be wasted while Congress drags its feet on paying the bills.
Petar Todorov is a senior majoring in chemistry. He can be reached at Petar.Todorov@tufts.edu.