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NIH's 'Secret Plans' for a Government Shutdown

With a possible government shutdown only a few days away, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) appears to be ready to send in a skeleton staff to care for patients and maintain animals and experiments at the agency's Bethesda, Maryland, campus. But accompanying the plans is a strange sense of secrecy.

As lawmakers and the Obama Administration continue to clash over the depth of budget cuts, leaders are now acknowledging that the federal government could shut down Monday barring another stopgap measure to fund government operations for a fiscal year that began last October. University-based scientists may not notice at first, as temporarily closing the offices that distribute most of NIH's $31 billion budget to outside investigators won't immediately affect these extramural grants. But about 10% of the agency's budget goes to its intramural program, which has over 1000 principal investigators (PIs), 4000 postdocs, hundreds of labs, animal facilities, and many clinical studies. Much of this can't just shut down and be left unattended.

NIH Deputy Director for Intramural Research Michael Gottesman e-mailed ScienceInsider yesterday that each of NIH's 27 institutes and centers is identifying people who would be "excepted" from the shutdown. That includes clinical staff; fire, security, and animal care personnel; and a few employees "who are protecting research investments."

But the details are sketchy. Any public discussion of the contingency plans is forbidden "for political reasons," says one high-level official, explaining that the government can't look like it's preparing for a shutdown. Even internal e-mails are now verboten, this source said; instead, planning has been done the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth.

That said, "there seems to be a coherent plan," a lab chief said. A few months ago, PIs submitted lists of essential personnel, including most physicians, animal caretakers, and others who will maintain experiments or cell lines that can't be shut down. The numbers ScienceInsider heard ranged from 50% of a group that does nonprimate work and clinical trials to just 10% of one institute's entire intramural program. But there's no word whether those lists have been approved.

The uncertainty is stressful, says one PI, who was allowed to designate only himself and one other lab member to maintain lab animals and cell cultures for a pause of indefinite length. "A great deal of treasure will be lost if this shutdown happens" because experiments may be damaged, he predicted.

Although government shutdowns are not uncommon, most recently in late 1995 and early 1996, the culture seems different this time around. While in the past many people, especially postdocs, came into work and were eventually paid, this time, "the impression I have is that you will have to show you're on some list" to enter a building, one lab chief said. Another investigator was told there will be fines for violators. This time, NIH staff members aren't even supposed to log into e-mail from home, a source said.