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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Shutdown

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When I recruit scientists to NIMH, I usually have the three-legged stool conversation. I explain that career decisions can be based on three factors: salary, lifestyle, and impact. For most scientists, coming to NIMH means sacrificing salary and working very long hours for the opportunity to have enormous impact. Talented scientists accept this bargain to join our extramural program because they know that here they can change the course of science. Where else can you invest millions of public dollars into scientific projects for the public good? In our intramural program, we have attracted an elite corps of clinical and basic researchers who forego the freedoms of working in a university or the salaries of working in industry to become government scientists in an environment where innovation and impact are paramount.

With this understanding, some of the best and brightest choose to become NIMH public servants. They accept the salary freezes that continue year after year, the budget uncertainties, and even the restrictions on travel and attending scientific meetings, as long as these are not removing the one leg of the stool that guided the choice to come here: impact. That was the real pain of the 16 day government shutdown. During this period, furloughed workers were not permitted to do any government-related work, use a government computer or cell phone, or represent the government in any public forum. The few who were not furloughed were permitted to work on only “excepted” activities, involving the safety of patients or animals or protection of property.

NIMH business was almost completely on hold. October is one of our peak periods for grant review, scientific meetings, and strategic planning – all cancelled. Patients were not admitted to research protocols, laboratory research was delayed without access to basic supplies, and new research projects were postponed. Students and fellows training in our intramural labs lost precious time on projects due to be completed before November meetings.

Recovery will take time. Starting up various government functions after the shutdown is not like flipping a switch, but over the course of this week most of our data systems will be running again. Our grant review cycle was disrupted, but we should be able to recover by rescheduling missed peer review meetings to enable most applications to be considered at January 2014 Council meetings. Research projects will be delayed, but in most cases not irreparably harmed, largely because of the dedication of “excepted” staff during the shutdown.

I am more concerned about the damage done to our people. This exceptionally talented and dedicated NIMH team that sacrificed salary and lifestyle for impact just had the third leg of the stool removed. No job -- no impact. Of course, they know this was not personal. And yet, there was something about the furlough that left even the most self-sacrificing public servant feeling dispensable and devalued. In spite of reassuring and grateful messages from the President, the Secretary, and the NIH Director, the long-term impact of the shutdown may be on morale. We have an extraordinary team here who care deeply about the mission of NIMH. They deserve better. I still plan to have the three-legged stool conversation with potential recruits, but in the current political climate I will have to add some new challenges.