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Tales of the Shutdown: Fruit Fly Shipments on Hold

8 October 2013 6:15 pm
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Shaila Kotadia/American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Shutdown shoutout. Researchers associated with the American Society for Cell Biology discuss the shutdown’s impact on science in Washington, D.C., today.

Even Austrian research fruit flies are feeling the effects of the U.S. government shutdown. The flies are unable to enter the country in shipments bound for U.S. research labs because border inspectors are on furlough, speakers at a Washington, D.C., press conference said today.

The grounded flies are just another example of how the 1 October shutdown is affecting science, speakers organized by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) said at today’s event. And it is yet another blow on top of a decade of declining budgets for the $29 billion National Institutes of Health (NIH) and last year’s 5.5% cut due to across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, they added. ASCB Executive Director Stefano Bertuzzi noted that in addition to shuttering experiments at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, the shutdown has canceled peer-review meetings and furloughed the 1300 NIH program officers who help scientists receive funding.

ASCB President Don Cleveland of the University of California, San Diego, said his team just published an animal study on a gene silencing therapy for treating a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that they now hope to move to clinical studies. But his grant application submitted in September is now on hold at NIH’s neuroscience institute. “We are deeply frustrated. … It’s demoralizing,” he said.

Johns Hopkins University cell biologist Carol Greider, a 2009 Nobel Prize-winner, lamented that NIH grant success rates are now about 15%, less than half of what they were in the 1980s when she did her prizewinning work. Young scientists “are in jeopardy today,” she said.

Princeton University molecular biologist Rebecca Burdine, who also worries that the NIH cuts are delaying treatments for her child with a rare neurological disease called Angelman syndrome, said that “many” of her peers are “circling the drain” waiting in vain to receive NIH funding. “They’re slowing shutting their labs down and they’re leaving science,” she said.

The fruit fly example came from Bertuzzi, who heard it from New York University fruit fly geneticist Ruth Lehmann. When Lehmann ordered flies last week from a Drosophila repository in Vienna, the center e-mailed back that it has suspended shipments to the United States because the closure of the U.S. Department of Agriculture means the flies cannot clear customs. “We’re isolating our scientists from the rest of the world” by preventing them from sharing reagents, Bertuzzi said.

Kevin Wilson, ASCB’s director of public policy, said his group’s greatest concern is that NIH’s budget may be cut further in 2014 as part of new sequestration cuts. That “would decimate the community,” he said.

Yesterday’s three winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine, two of whom are ASCB members, have added their voices to the chorus of concerns about budget cutbacks at NIH.

You can see our complete shutdown coverage here.

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