skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXV, No. 23
Novermber 8, 2013
cover

next story


‘If You’re Going Through Hell—Keep Going!’
Collins Hosts Town Hall on Effects of Shutdown on NIH

On the front page...

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins
NIH director Dr. Francis Collins
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.

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.

Continued...

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.

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 shutdown.

“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 added.

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.

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 Furloughed

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 special rates:

  • 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 months.

  • 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 million, including:

  • 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 rollout.

NIH leadership offered NIH-wide email to announce SAFE’s launch—an exception to normal use, Duvall noted, and “nice of NIH management.

“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 Intramural Program

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. Michael Gottesman.

“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 reliable partner.”

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 animal colonies.

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 considered “essential.”

“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 trying circumstances.”

 


back to top of page