Scientists at the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency with a $30 billion budget responsible for funding medical research across the country, probably woke up Tuesday morning with, at best, audible sighs.
First, in the spring, there was sequestration—the automatic, across the board spending cuts that lopped off 5.5 percent of their budget. Now, thanks to the government shutdown, 73 percent of NIH staff is sitting at home, furloughed—among them, some of the most brilliant scientists and medical researchers in the world—and, thanks to a Congress whose mental health is open to debate, they've been put in the untenable position of turning away 200 patients to the NIH Clinical Center, including 30 children, many of them cancer patients.
The person tasked with leading this besieged organization is Dr. Francis Collins. Before he was director of the NIH, Collins made headlines around the world in 2000 for leading the Human Genome Project, the global effort that unlocked the secrets of human DNA—a paradigm-shifting advance that firmly established him as one of the most significant scientists of our generation. In 2009, President Obama tapped him to become NIH director, ostensibly becoming dean of the nation’s health and leading the largest biomedical research agency in the world—all in the midst of a recession.
“When I started I did not imagine it would get this bad, to be truthful,” Collins said. “I don't think anyone imagined when the concept of the sequester was laid on the table that it would happen. It was supposed to be this poison pill that was so painful, so destructive that it would never come to pass and yet, well, the Congress swallowed it and we all got poisoned.” With the government shutdown, Congress has decided to double the dosage.