National Cancer Institute director warns staff of increasingly dire effects of shutdown on science

National Cancer Institute headquarters, Bethesda, Maryland.

Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, sent this email today to "NCI staff, grantees, advisors, reviewers and others," warning of increasingly damaging effects the ongoing federal government shutdown will have on cancer research and treatment at NCI. Even worse than the litany of known, present harm, is this grim prediction: the damage won't end when the government reopens.

A copy of this email was provided by a Boing Boing reader who was one of the recipients:

I am writing to keep you abreast of the ways in which the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and its extramural and intramural research programs have been --- and are likely to be --- affected by the current shutdown of the federal government. And I am also writing to ask for your help in responding to the difficult situation that we are likely to face when the government is reopened.

As you have doubtless seen in the media, if not experienced directly, the NCI, along with the rest of the NIH, has been obliged to place on furlough many valuable employees, presently about 80 percent of our staff. While all components of the NCI have furloughed many personnel, most of those we have been able to exempt from furlough are in our intramural programs and needed to preserve ongoing research protocols, ensure laboratory safety, care for experimental animals, and, especially, serve our patients at the Clinical Research Center. This situation has been hard for everyone, particularly for many of our trainees, who have been told to limit their activities on campus to those permitted during the shutdown. They, like regular staff members, are unable to travel to scientific meetings or to perform much of the research they came to NCI to do.

Although the shutdown has been felt most acutely by our staff and investigators in the intramural program, the effects on the extramural research community are likely to become progressively greater as the situation persists. Presently, the vast majority of NCI’s extramural staff is furloughed, which means that many NCI staff members are unable to provide their usual administrative and programmatic support services to extramural grantees. Furthermore, many grantees, especially those responsible for planning collaborative work, including clinical trials, have been limited in their abilities to conduct important meetings that require NCI staff and support. Still, we have been able to exempt from furlough some program officers who provide oversight and guidance for clinical trials that were initiated prior to the shutdown. Moreover, the length of the shutdown has not been great enough to affect most ongoing research activities at extramural sites. Since the Payment Management System has remained operational, we also continue to process requests to obtain expected funds for most of the grants awarded to our extramural investigators. However, that may not be possible if an award was made with restrictive terms or if a request triggers a need for additional interactions.

Now that the shutdown is nearing the end of its second week, however, further consequences are coming into view. While grant applications can be accepted and stored at, the NIH Office of Extramural Research has discouraged submissions, and applications will not be processed further until normal business operations are restored through Congressional appropriations. (See the OER’s message at Furthermore, NCI’s Division of Extramural Activities (DEA) has postponed until undetermined dates several site visits to evaluate re-competing centers and large grant applications, and it has postponed more than a dozen meetings to review grant applications. Thus, the NCI’s grant review cycle could be significantly delayed, threatening a smooth restart of NCI’s support of extramural research, even if the NIH reopens relatively soon.

This situation could have serious effects on the review and funding of virtually all NCI programs, including NCI-designated Cancer Centers, program project and SPORE grants, training awards, and individual research project grants. Questions or concerns about these matters should be sent to John Czajkowski, NCI Deputy Director for Management ([email redacted]), or to Dr. Paulette Gray, Director of the Division of Extramural Activities ([email redacted]).

Part of the reason I am writing at this time is to prepare you for the possibility that we at the NCI (and presumably others at the NIH) will be asking reviewers and advisors to adapt to abrupt and inconvenient changes in the scheduling of meetings to review grant applications and oversee programs. These changes may require you to alter long-standing plans to attend worthwhile events. But avoiding a major crisis in grant-making and program development this year may be possible only if all members of the NCI communities are willing to help alleviate the consequences of the shutdown.

Needless to say, all of us at the NCI hope that the current situation is resolved quickly, but we have no way to know when the shutdown will end. In the meantime, I encourage all of you to monitor major media outlets regularly, as we do, for updates on the status of federal operations. As long as the shutdown continues, the NCI will remain committed to advancing our common cause---research to control cancer---as best we can within the limits of the law. Your patience, persistence, and flexibility are very much appreciated during this unhappy and uncertain time.

Harold Varmus

Director, NCI

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• "During the shutdown, some scientists can't talk about science"

• "Meet two cancer patients whose treatment is on hold due to US gov shutdown: an 8yo girl, and a father of 3"

• "US gov shutdown may mean some kids with cancer won't be treated, CDC's outbreak detection programs also halted"

More in our Shutdown 2013 archives.