"Whoa, NCBI is down."
I am currently spending my semester abroad performing research at the Brain Research Institute in Zurich, Switzerland.
NCBI is the National Center for Biotechnology Information, and those were the words that came out of a post-doctoral fellow's mouth last Tuesday morning as he was informed, via a red bar at the top of his computer screen, that the United States government had shut down and websites run by U.S. government agencies, such as NCBI, would no longer be updating.
NCBI houses most of the major databases relevant to the life sciences. PubMed, for example, an online biomedical library used by just about every life science researcher in the world, is not being updated. Neither is GenBank, a collection of every publicly available gene sequence. BLAST, or the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool, which allows researchers to compare sequences between different genes, proteins and organisms, isn't updating either.
If these things seem inconsequential, consider the huge magnitude of life science research going on all over the world. GenBank, when operating normally, doubles in size every 18 months.
Even here in Switzerland, where we use all of these tools on an almost-daily basis, we're feeling it.
This is nothing, though, compared to what is happening at home in the United States, where research at government agencies, already hit hard by sequestration earlier this year, has come grinding to a halt. Seventy-three percent of the National Institute of Health has been put on furlough. Researchers located as far away as Antarctica are being told to come back. Closer to home, Oak Ridge National Lab's Y-12 National Security Complex has begun an "orderly shutdown."
Make no mistake, this isn't just a bit of a standstill. This is a slaughter.
You can't just freeze research, because research is time sensitive. Fieldwork can't just be rescheduled. Environmental conditions don't put themselves on pause because the government has decided to take a break.
Laboratory research isn't spared either. Though the NIH has included cell culture and animal maintenance among its essential and allowed activities, experiments that depend on samples collected at a certain time point are doomed. Experiments also often necessitate continuous behavioral training and/or testing animals when they are at a certain age. Interrupting this can waste valuable weeks, months or even entire years of preparation. In these instances, there is no picking up where these researchers have left off. There is only starting over.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The National Science Foundation will not be making payments to those it funds during the shutdown, and neither they nor the NIH, which had a grant application deadline this past Monday, Oct. 7, will be funding any new projects during this time.
Much ado has been made over the 30 children directly affected by the NIH clinical trials that are not going forward at this time because of the shutdown. Much less has been said about the indirect effects of this — of the growing backlog of experiments and trials that now must wait that much longer to begin. It's not an exaggeration to say that, for a cancer patient, such a delay can be the difference between life and death.
Undiscussed, too, is the message this is sending to young scientists in the U.S. Not only are we being told that our research is nonessential, we are being shown that we have all but no scientific stability — that all it takes for our funding and continued work to stop in this country is 32 radicals demanding they get their way.
In the end, this may be the greatest cost. As NCBI remains stalled, researchers around the world are using alternative tools. The post-doctoral fellow I sit next to here in Zurich comments on how he prefers collaborations with partners in the U.K. to those in the U.S. The default position that the United States has held in the center of biomedical research is slipping. The best researchers go where they can do their best research. It's looking less and less like the United States is that place.
Melissa Lee is a senior in College Scholars. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.