|‘If You’re Going Through Hell—Keep Going!’|
Collins Hosts Town Hall on Effects of Shutdown on NIH
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Addressing the NIH community that had gathered in Masur Auditorium or who had tuned into a live videocast of the event, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins held an hour-long town hall meeting Oct. 23 in which he condemned the effects of “an unnecessary and ultimately pointless shutdown” that closed the government Oct. 1-16 and idled 75 percent of the NIH workforce.
|NIH director Dr. Francis Collins
For the first half of the session, Collins outlined a steadily deteriorating political landscape that has included first multiple threats of shutdown, then the reality of budget sequestration, culminating in a 16-day shutdown coinciding with the start of FY 2014. Federal regulations barred any but “excepted” employees—those with responsibility for the preservation of life (human and animal) and property—from coming to work. The second part of the meeting included Q&As from both the audience in Masur and via email.
Collins acknowledged at the outset that “it’s been
a pretty dysfunctional and disheartening time for
government over the past 3 weeks. Once again, it
seems that federal employees and contractors have
taken the brunt of the consequences” for political
decisions over which they had no control.
Ironically, the shutdown hit just as six Nobel Prizes—
three for medicine/physiology and three for
chemistry—were awarded to
NIH grantees, said Collins. “All six were courageous
in pointing out the irony of the situation,” he noted.
Further, the Federal Employee of the Year award
went to a team of four NIH scientists, who got word
of the honor on the shutdown’s third day. Collins
noted that four of the five Nobel laureates currently
employed by the government also got furloughed.
As he has in many venues in recent months, Collins
lambasted the damage imposed by sequestration,
which has denied NIH $1.55 billion in funding in FY
2013 and resulted in an inability to award some 640
research project grants that were deemed worthy of
NIH support. An estimated 750 patients were not
seen at the Clinical Center, due to sequestration, he
reported. Worse, Collins said that unless sequestration
is undone, it will result in $18.8 billion in losses
to NIH over the next decade.
Collins said the only good news
that came out of the shutdown
is that NIH is now considered
a “national force” that no one
wants to see idled.
Photos: Ernie Branson
There was, however, a silver lining to the shutdown
debacle: “NIH was mentioned over and
over again” in the media as a national treasure
worth preserving; several members of Congress
even introduced bills to reopen NIH during the
“If any good came of this obnoxious shutdown,”
Collins said, “it was that the science that NIH
conducts and supports was featured prominently
in media coverage worldwide. NIH was viewed
as one of the most important government programs...
We have never seen a time when NIH has
had more positive visibility as a national force
that needs to be supported.”
He tallied some 9,000 media mentions of NIH in
all 50 states and in more than 12 foreign countries.
Of the latter audience, he said, “They were
astounded that this could happen in the United
States of America.”
Collins said someone joked darkly that bills to
reopen NIH were akin to someone taking a bus
full of schoolchildren hostage, then deciding “to
let the cute ones go...It was nice to be considered
cute,” he quipped.
Even for those permitted to come to work, “the
rules we had to live under during the shutdown
were rigid and onerous,” said Collins, who noted
that 17 years have passed since the last government-
wide shutdown. “We found ourselves having
to adhere to various rules which were actually
quite offensive, and we had no ability to freelance.”
He predicted a slew of inquiries from the General
Accounting Office, the inspector general and various
congressional committees during which NIH
“will have to defend how we interpreted our activities
during the government shutdown.”
Collins noted that narrow considerations of who
was considered “excepted” were especially irksome
to NIH. “Let me say right here how unfortunate,
frankly offensive and insulting the implications
of that distinction were to many people.”
Quite a few IC directors were furloughed, he
Collins called the effect of the shutdown on CC
patients “most gripping” to the public. In a normal
week, some 200 new patients are admitted,
15 percent of whom are children. Under shutdown
rules, only patients in life-threatening
straits could be admitted (see sidebar below).
Collins greets attendees after the town hall meeting.
Looking to the new year, Collins noted “the
only certainty these days is uncertainty,” but
held out hope that congressional budget negotiators can reach a solution that
includes the abolition of sequestration. “NIH is often pointed to as a poster
child” for the ills of sequestration, he said. “It makes no sense for health, it
makes no sense for the economy.”
Collins said he was inspired by “the enthusiasm and commitment” of an NIH workforce
that returned on Oct. 17. At a time when resentment, anger and depression
might reasonably have characterized the attitudes of returnees, he said, “You all have
come roaring back, full of energy, full of determination to make up for lost time, to
live out the promise of this great institution.”
Though his audience had not yet been back a full week, he enumerated triumphs
in the world of grants, human resources and review, including a decision not to
ditch the October grant submission cycle. Even though more than 200 peer-review
meetings were scuttled by the shutdown, affecting some 11,000 grants, NIH will
work double-time not to delay this process for another 4 months.
Collins concluded, “I am humbled and thankful to be associated with all of you…
your professionalism is a delight to behold.” Then, quoting Winston Churchill, he
admonished, “If you’re going through hell—keep going!”
A videocast of the town hall may be viewed (by NIH’ers only) at http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=13237.
NIHFCU: Financial Friend to the
Did you work during the shutdown?
Employees of the NIH Federal Credit Union did,
“with a number of them working extended
hours,” said Tim Duvall, acting CEO—“by trade,
CFO”—and a 33-year veteran of NIHFCU.
“This was an all-hands-on-deck moment,” said
Duvall. Except for the Clinical Center location,
all NIHFCU branches on NIH property went dark.
Yet since NIHFCU is not a government entity, it
remained “fully operational.”
The mission: Special Assistance for Federal Employees
(SAFE), allowing credit union members
with “temporary financial hardship due to a
disruption in pay” to borrow up to $10,000 at
Terms for closed-end loans and lines of credit
were zero percent introductory APR for 30/60-
days, then 1.99 to 4.99 percent for the next 12
Other supporting services were available
such as skip a pay on existing loans.
“The SAFE loan’s more relaxed guidelines
enabled us to provide assistance to a greater
number of households,” said Duvall.
NIHFCU extended SAFE products totaling $3.8
300 closed-end loans
350 lines of credit
Created in 2009 based on prior experiences,
SAFE was reviewed and refreshed “just in case.”
By September 2013, working closely with their
board chair, Duvall and his team were poised for
NIH leadership offered NIH-wide email to
announce SAFE’s launch—an exception to
normal use, Duvall noted, and “nice of NIH
“We didn’t expect SAFE to generate revenue,”
he said, “but it should generate good will.”
“It’s people helping people,” said Steve Levin,
VP for marketing.
A credit union like NIHFCU is a member-ownedand-
operated cooperative that exists not to
maximize profits, but to serve members (NIH
employees, contractors and their families) by
filling gaps in financial services.
“The shutdown was an event beyond the
control of the federal government employees,”
said Duvall. “Folks were stuck. We wanted to
return value to our membership and potential
members during a time of need.
“It was the right thing to do.”
For details, visit www.nihfcu.org.—Belle Waring
Shutdown Applies Brakes to
The furlough of three-quarters of NIH’s
workforce for 16 days dealt a particularly
hard blow to the Intramural Research Program,
putting 2,500 research protocols and
1,500 clinical protocols on hold, said NIH
deputy director for intramural research Dr.
“Suddenly coming to a complete halt—that’s
a big blow to the whole research establishment,”
he said. “People were demoralized.
They love doing research, they love
taking care of patients. People [who were
furloughed] felt very isolated and alone.
Scientists are, by nature, a social species.
“What was amazing to me, though, was that
as soon as people came back, spirits lifted
enormously,” said Gottesman. “There was the
sense of ‘Boy, is it good to be back!’ So the
demoralization was not a permanent effect.”
Many experiments were lost and will have to
be repeated, he said, anticipating that it will
take a few weeks for most research projects
to get back up to speed.
Troubling to Gottesman was the message
a furlough sends to the wider research
community. “NIH has compacts with all sorts
of organizations. Our scientists collaborate,
give talks—all of our official duty activities—
and suddenly we were not reliably there to
do that. All of a sudden, NIH looks like a less
Although the Clinical Center remained
open, only 75 percent of its staff was on
hand, he said, and attendance varied from
institute to institute, based on clinical studies
under way. Of 7 protocols due to begin
during the shutdown, only one was allowed
to go forward, based on its potentially
life-saving effect. And only 24 of more than
400 scheduled patient visits were permitted
during the shutdown.
“No one could be in a lab without a supervisor,”
Gottesman said. Not all lab chiefs,
nor all scientific directors, hold “excepted”
positions, he noted. Those who were permitted
to work found themselves handling such
routine duties as checking freezers and
The definition of “excepted” is not the
same for a furlough as it is for a campus
emergency, Gottesman explained, leading
to some ticklish interpretations of who was
“We were very careful with our animal
[colonies],” Gottesman continued, allowing
continued breeding and assuring that
animals were genotyped to preserve needed
cage space. “We won’t have to start from
scratch with our animals.”
On any given day, NIH as a whole manages
around 384,000 animals, including more
than 330,000 mice, said Dr. Terri Clark,
director of the Office of Animal Care and Use.
There had been concerns that a prolonged
shutdown would have led to a need to
euthanize many mice due to overcrowding.
But that did not happen, she said. A small
number were culled and euthanized in the
normal course of breeding operations that
occurred during the shutdown.
“We came out of this in relatively good
shape in that we didn’t need to euthanize
a lot of animals due to the cessation of
experiments—it was a very, very small
number. The larger focus is the loss of
research time,” said Clark. Only critical
animal studies already in mid-stream or
experiments of particularly high value, as
determined by the scientific directors, were
allowed to go forward.
“We all breathed a deep sigh of relief that it
didn’t go longer,” said Clark.
Gottesman was reluctant to name heroes
during the shutdown. “There are more than
I could enumerate,” he said. “Everyone who
was here was doing the job of many others.
It’s hard to single out individuals. Even those
who did what they were supposed to do by
staying home did their part.”
He noted that contractors who were unable
to come to work will not be paid by NIH, but
said that individual contractors may elect to
compensate furloughed employees.
NIH’s facilities personnel were also affected.
Joanna Bare of the Office of Research
Facilities said, “We stopped essentially all
grounds maintenance, custodial services and
many other facilities-related services during
the shutdown. However, our facilities personnel
were onsite to prevent and mitigate major
incidents at all NIH locations.”
Among the incidents ORF dealt with, she
said, were “a transformer fire, 7+ inches of
rain that caused flooding and leaks in various
buildings, evacuation of an NIH leased building
due to a bomb threat in a nearby building
and numerous smaller incidents. Our facilities
folks handled all of it with professionalism,
kindness and immense patience under
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