After the end of 16-day federal shutdown in October, media headlines touted the financial impact on America and the cost of restarting the government. 

An initial analysis from Standard & Poor’s estimated that the shutdown took $24 billion out of the U.S. economy. But the shutdown had difficult-to-define non-economic effects, such as putting a snag in medical research. 

After all, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., the largest funder of medical research in the world (doling out nearly $31 billion annually), sent most of its employees home. This means that much of the business of medical research, such as grant submissions, reviews, and approvals, had to be put on hold.

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An NIH notice issued on October 1, when the shutdown began, read: “For the duration of the funding lapse, applicants are strongly encouraged not to submit paper or electronic grant applications to NIH during the period of the lapse. Adjustments to application submission dates that occur during the funding lapse will be announced once operations resume.”

The same for peer review meetings. “For the duration of the funding lapse, the NIH will not be able to conduct initial peer review meetings – whether in-person or through teleconferences or other electronic media. Also during this time, the NIH staff will not be able to send or receive email messages, or update website information, and NIH computer systems that support review functions will not be operational. When operations resume, those meetings will be re-scheduled and the pending applications will be processed and reviewed as soon as possible.”

Visitors to the PubMed website, which is maintained by the NIH, were told that the site was being run with minimal staffing, which could mean that this essential research tool may have gotten behind in abstracting and indexing the world’s biomedical literature.

The shutdown even affected NIH at the level of patient care. NIH indicated it would not enroll new patients in ongoing studies or clinical trials at the NIH Clinical Center for the duration of the shutdown.

NIH staff will eventually clear the backlog of work that grew during the shutdown and restart the engine that drives this vital research train. It is truly unfortunate that it took only handful of Congressmen to stop that train, even if these individuals believed they were acting in the nation’s best interest. 

If the American people have to endure another shutdown, Republicans and Democrats should at least agree to leave medical research alone.