The Government Shutdown Has Created a Science Ghost Town at NIH

With days of the shutdown dragging on, projects and services across almost all government agencies are, you know, stalled. And the situation at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, MD is unstable, according to a report in Nature. Hundreds of experiments with animals and cell lines are in jeopardy because researchers can't go to work.

Animal technicians are allowed to work so they can provide care for the 1.4 million rodents and 3,900 non-human primates that live at NIH. And there are a few hundred employees who are allowed to feed and maintain valuable cell lines, but everyone has strict limits on how much they can work (some researchers can only go in an hour a day) and everyone is basically just treading water. Researchers have had to think of creative ways to keep their experiments going by freezing specimens or asking technicians to take tissue samples from animals.

The ethics surrounding animal testing have been complicated by the shutdown. For example, animals that were given cancer or other debilitating illnesses as part of medical experiments may need to be euthanized when their diseases reach a certain point. But without researchers in the labs their conditions are not necessarily being evaluated. Furthermore, one researcher Nature spoke with said that it doesn't feel ethical to keep the monkeys he studies in cages if they are not being experimented on, because the justification for their confinement involves experimenting on them for the greater good.

Other researchers pointed out that if the shutdown continues for much longer they will run out of the supplies they are currently using to keep things going, and even more experiments will be irreparably damaged. The situation has looked dire from the beginning. Wired interviewed a biomedical researcher 1o days ago who lamented, "It’s a waste of money, a waste of time, a waste of people, a waste of animals." [Nature]

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