Friday, October 4, 2013

A House Divided

If you're an American (and very likely if you're not) you know by now that the US government has shutdown over budget disagreements in the legislature.  What this "shutdown" entails is approximately 800,000 workers are neither working nor being paid.  However, "essential" workers continue to report for work and draw their paychecks.  The question is, "How big a deal is the shut down really?"

Economically speaking, as long as the budgetary problems are resolved relatively quickly there is unlikely to be a substantial impact.  Furloughed workers have historically received back pay upon their return to work during previous shut downs.  Thus, they will have as much money as usual during the upcoming holiday season.  Obviously all the work they would have accomplished during the shut down is lost forever, but in the grand scheme of the US economy their production is relatively small.  The larger economic impact is likely to be the continuing proof that the US political system is increasingly unable to get it's house in order.

For individuals however it's a very different story.  Nearly seventy five percent of the National Institute of Health's (NIH) staff has been furloughed.  Thus potentially life saving clinical trials have ground to a halt. Experiments that require daily monitoring have been hastily shelved in efforts to preserve cell lines. Grant moneys for federally funded projects are in many cases inaccessible to those receiving the awards. Even important federally maintained databases are either shut down or left unattended.

Similar stories are echoed throughout the research community. The Bureau of Economic Analysis and Census Bureau websites have been shutdown for the duration of the furlough. These organizations maintain databases that are valuable and essential resources for a great deal of economic research.  Without access to them many research projects will be unable to progress.

Of course, eventually the legislature will resolve their differences and such resources will become available again.  Among the hardest hit by a prolonged delay however will be NASA.  Due to the importance of certain celestial alignments any delay in mission launch schedules will set back missions by years as NASA waits for orbits to come together again.  The frustration of working on a mission for years just to be told a forced furlough would cause the launch window to be missed must be immeasurable.

The longer the shut down drags on the more profound the effects on research within our country will become.  Luckily the NIH grant cycle has just ended so there is a little time to resolve the congressional dispute without impacting the funding cycle too severely.  However, if an agreement is not reached within a few weeks funding for new and existing programs will very quickly begin to evaporate.  These programs are generally funded for the time being but require renewal which they'll be unable to acquire. We can only hope that wiser heads prevail in Washington and the shut down ends soon.

That's all for this week. Until next week stay safe and rationale.

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