As the U.S. government shutdown lingers, more and more agencies are feeling the effects.

For Science Agencies, the Government Shutdown’s Ripple Effects

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The U.S. government shutdown is now closing out its fifth week, as votes on competing proposals from Democrats and Republicans failed to pass on Thursday. While some major agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy (DOE) were ostensibly spared from going unfunded, employees say they, too, are feeling the hurt.

Retaining its $39 billion annual budget, the NIH is required to publish notices of upcoming meetings to review proposals in the Federal Register, which acts as the government’s daily diary. But with the register closed, NIH has been unable to fulfill this duty.

While the Office of the Federal Register has noted that there are provisions for posting critical notices that cannot be delayed without a significant impact on “the execution of funded functions at the agency,” scientists say they’ve had to reschedule or postpone panels for clinical studies, as well as environmental science. And with more meetings in jeopardy later this month and into February, the agency, according to Science, is “hoping to negotiate a blanket approval, arguing that the meetings are critical to its operations.” 

Meanwhile, employees of the Department of Energy are trying to find out the reasoning behind a directive two weeks ago to cancel travel plans in response to the shutdown. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, chair of the House Science Committee, wrote to DOE Secretary Rick Perry to request an explanation by Friday.

All of this comes as the Trump administration continues to push forward with its plans for fossil fuel development. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management brought back 40 furloughed employees this month to work on offshore drilling activities. And according to E&E News, the Bureau of Land Management is still processing applications for oil drilling while the country’s national parks remain closed. “The dichotomy between the national parks littered with trash while they continue to move forward with an oil and gas lease sale is striking to me,” Warren King, an energy specialist with nonprofit Wilderness Society, told the publication.

Senate Democrats including Cory Booker, Dianne Feinstein, and Edward Markey sent a letter to the Department of Interior Tuesday, asking for an explanation.

“While the oil industry might view a delay in the approval of new offshore drilling as an emergency,” the letter stated, “the American people deserve regulators who prioritize safety and environmental protection over political expediency and the wishes of moneyed special interests.”

Also in the news:

• Malaria, guinea worm, dengue fever. The maladies that disproportionately afflict the world’s poor also tend to attract the skimpiest investments toward prevention and treatment. But a new study suggests that efforts to close that gap may be paying off: Research funding for so-called neglected diseases — which afflict some 1 billion people, mostly in tropical and subtropical regions — climbed to a record high in 2017, according to the global health think tank Policy Cures Research. The $3.6 billion invested globally by public agencies, philanthropic organizations, and pharmaceutical companies represented a $300 million increase over 2016 and surpassed the previous record of $3.5 billion set in 2009. The surge was driven in part by increased efforts to develop drugs, vaccines, and other technologies that combat a range of diseases at once, not just individual maladies. Still, the 2017 total falls well short of the $8 billion the authors estimate is needed to effectively manage the diseases. And, apparently, neglected diseases remain a low priority for pharmaceutical companies: The half billion dollars the companies invested in neglected-disease research in 2017 corresponds to just a sliver of the industry’s more than $70 billion in annual research and development spending. (Nature)

• A measles outbreak in a Portland, Oregon community known as an anti-vaccine stronghold has led public health officials in Clark County, Washington to declare a health emergency as cases spread across the state line. Physicians tracking the disease said cases escalated from just a few last week to at least 25 confirmed and 12 suspect cases this week, almost all in unvaccinated individuals. The outbreak mirrors a similar one in North Carolina late last year, also in a community full of anti-vaccine advocates. “It’s really awful and really tragic and totally preventable,” infectious disease expert Peter J. Hotez told The Washington Post of the situation in Washington. Of the 7.9 percent of children in Clark County who were not vaccinated before starting school, the majority cited personal or religious reasons. And experts warn that the outbreak could just be getting started, as measles has an incubation period of two weeks and can begin spreading days before symptoms become obvious. (The Washington Post)

• Less than two months after Chinese researcher He Jiankui was pilloried by the global scientific community for using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool to edit human embryos, another group of Chinese researchers is making headlines for using the same technique to induce several human diseases in cloned monkeys. Published in China’s National Science Review journal, the scientists report that they knocked out a gene called BMAL1, which is crucial to regulating the circadian clock. The five BMAL1-deficient monkeys, they note, exhibit anxiety and depression, sleep problems, and schizophrenia-like behavior. “We believe that this approach of cloning gene-edited monkeys could be used to generate a variety of monkey models for gene-based diseases,” a senior author of the paper said in a statement, “including many brain diseases, as well as immune and metabolic disorders and cancer.” While the researchers claim to have followed “strict international guidelines for animal research,” ethical issues abound, according to Deborah Cao, an expert in animal welfare, law, and ethics at Australia’s Griffith University. “The best way to reduce the number of monkeys used in such experiments is to stop such animal experiments,” she told Newsweek. “Instead of developing nonhuman primate disease models for humans, they should develop human disease models for humans.” (Newsweek)

• Health officials in Liberia announced this week that they have detected a bat carrying the Ebola virus for the first time in West Africa. Starting in 2014, an outbreak of the disease in the region — the most widespread in history — killed more than 11,000 people. Liberia itself has not experienced an Ebola case in humans since 2016 and the bat was not linked to any known illness. And while research on the animal’s genome is still ongoing and has not been through peer-review, officials wanted to alert the public early on. The news comes as Ebola, which can lead to hemorrhaging and death, continues to spread across the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa. Bats carrying the disease have been previously found in this region. If confirmed in the Liberian bat, researchers may be able to provide more guidance on how people can avoid exposure. They warned however, that the findings do not warrant killing off the bats, as they serve as pollinators and help keep insect species in check. (New York Times)

• More than 130 people die from opioid overdoses in the United States every day. Millions more struggle to recover from addiction and, with luck, avoid that fate. Studies suggest that something called MAT — an acronym for medication-assisted treatment or medication-assisted therapy — is the most effective treatment approach for people with opioid use disorder, reducing the risk of death in individuals by at least half. But a report published this week by Undark suggests that MAT, for all its proven benefits, isn’t foolproof. Even on Suboxone, an opioid-replacement drug that can cut cravings and reduce withdrawal symptoms, many with addiction continue to struggle and relapse, particularly those struggling with personal trauma, abject poverty, and “environments saturated with the very substances they are trying to avoid.” Recognizing this, some treatment facilities are now beginning to offer medication alongside more holistic strategies that seek to stabilize the lives of those with addiction — including help with finding and keeping housing, maintaining overall health, and finding jobs. “Our approach is: ‘Your urine is positive for substances. Let’s figure out how to make this work better for you,’” the director of one Philadelphia clinic told Undark. “It’s not like you’re one and done.” (Undark)

• And finally: A new poll finds that more Americans than ever now understand that climate change is real. In a survey conducted online in November 2018 by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, a record 62 percent of the 1,114 respondents also said they understood humans to be the main cause of climate change. Some of the greatest increases in the number of survey-respondents that report being concerned about global warming have occurred since the poll was last conducted in March. Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the program at Yale, told The New York Times “I’ve never seen jumps in some of the key indicators like this.” Leiserowitz said President Donald J. Trump’s strong, politically charged denial of climate change is partly responsible for American’s changing perceptions and opinions about climate change, driving more people to take strong positions. (New York Times)

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