It turns out that a government shutdown is rather like a major storm. It paralyzes much of the city, causes incredible damage, and when the skies finally clear we are left to begin rebuilding. We are digging ourselves out of the mess left by the 16 day government shutdown earlier this month and repairing the damage. It was great to feel the energy and enthusiasm as everyone came back to work – it is a testament to the very real commitment of the NINDS staff to our mission that people have put the difficulties of the past few weeks behind them and are getting our biomedical research engines up and running smoothly again.
The shutdown was difficult for everyone - our staff, the broad scientific community and the patients who look to us for hope. NINDS placed over 500 employees – almost 90% of our workforce – on furlough, or enforced leave. Only the handful of employees absolutely necessary to respond to an emergency, deal directly with patients, or keep time-sensitive experiments on campus from being lost remained at work. Everyone else was asked to come in for four hours on Oct. 1st and then sent home. Scientists in the intramural program on the Bethesda campus couldn’t conduct experiments, analyze data or write papers. Review officers had to cancel grant review meetings. Program directors couldn’t speak with applicants or grantees, attend important scientific meeting or hold planning meetings. Applicants saw grant application receipt deadlines and scheduled review meetings come and go without the ability to access our systems, hotlines, or staff. It seemed as if NIH might well have to skip a review cycle and lose four months. Patients were forced to wait, anxiously, as enrollment in new clinical trials here on the NIH campus was stopped. Somehow the fact that the shutdown ushered in the second year of the sequestration cuts made it even worse.
The next few weeks of recovery are likely to be as challenging as the shutdown was: just as after a storm, we are assessing and addressing the damage. In Bethesda, intramural scientists are back at work trying to make up for lost time, and the NIH Clinical Center is fully operational and new patients are being admitted. Getting the grant review and application processes for extramural scientists back on track, however, is much more complicated. The shutdown forced the cancellation of over 200 peer-review meetings involving thousands of scientists and more than 11,000 applications across NIH. Here at NINDS, two of our key review meetings had to be rescheduled, and almost 75% of the applications that would have been funded from the January meeting of the NINDS advisory council were affected. NIH is doing absolutely everything in its power to allow virtually all review meetings originally scheduled during October to be re-scheduled so that the applications can be considered for funding at January councils (see the grant notice http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-14-007.html and the OER Director’s message http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2013/10/22/change-plans-revised-schedule/). Meeting this goal presents extraordinary logistical hurdles, but putting off review could have a devastating effect on research programs, especially for new investigators. Reviewers have assured NIH of their willingness to move heaven and earth to accommodate rescheduled meetings. NIH review officers are working around the clock to assemble special emphasis panels (SEPS), internet assisted reviews, phone reviews - anything to get the job done in time. NIH is also allowing applicants who want to withdraw and update their applications to re-submit for the May Council round. Thus, NIH should be able to meet the widest array of the community’s varied needs. At the same time as NIH is working to review applications already in the queue, we have to accept, process and arrange review for all the applications coming in November in response to rescheduled receipt dates. Finally, the development of new initiatives was stopped in its tracks and is being jump-started, including work on the President’s BRAIN initiative that seeks to support the development and use of tools for acquiring fundamental insight about how the nervous system functions in health and disease.
Having lived this shutdown and as well as the earlier shutdown of 1995-96, I know that our community is resilient and NIH can and will rise above these challenges. We are learning important lessons from this experience that we can apply if we are ever hit with another shutdown. If there is any silver lining to the storm clouds of the shutdown, it is that more than 9000 articles appeared in the press about the negative impact of the shutdown on the NIH, raising awareness of the important work that we all do for biomedical research and the importance of that research to all Americans.
Last updated July 24, 2015