Sunday Shutdown Reader: Harold Varmus on Self-Destruction in the Sciences

"Now that the shutdown is nearing the end of its second week, further consequences are coming into view ..." 

This has already showed up a few places on-line, but I had not seen it until a reader sent it to me, and I think it deserves wide circulation.

Last week, as the shutdown ground on, Harold Varmus, the director of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, sent the message below to NIH-affiliated researchers.

Varmus—that's not him on the right—is as well-known and -respected as any contemporary figure in American science. He received the Nobel Prize (with Michael Bishop) for work in discovering the genetic origins of cancer; he was himself a successful director of the entire NIH during the Clinton Administration; he then ran the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York for 10 years before returning to head the NCI unit of the NIH. Back in 1999 I wrote an article about him in The New Yorker, and since then we have stayed in touch.

Here is what Varmus is telling his colleagues about the current conditions for their research. For the record, I was alerted to Varmus's message by one of its recipients, a cancer researcher at a major East Coast university. I asked Varmus to confirm that it was real, which he did, but I did not get it from him.

From: [Harold Varmus email addresss]

Date: Friday, October 11, 2013 2:36 PM

Subject: Message from Harold Varmus

To NCI staff, grantees, advisors, reviewers and others:

I am writing to keep you abreast of the ways in which the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and its extramural and intramural research programs have been --- and are likely to be --- affected by the current shutdown of the federal government.  And I am also writing to ask for your help in responding to the difficult situation that we are likely to face when the government is reopened.

As you have doubtless seen in the media, if not experienced directly, the NCI, along with the rest of the NIH, has been obliged to place on furlough many valuable employees, presently about 80 percent of our staff.  While all components of the NCI have furloughed many personnel, most of those we have been able to exempt from furlough are in our intramural programs and needed to preserve ongoing research protocols, ensure laboratory safety, care for experimental animals, and, especially, serve our patients at the Clinical Research Center.  This situation has been hard for everyone, particularly for many of our trainees, who have been told to limit their activities on campus to those permitted during the shutdown.  They, like regular staff members, are unable to travel to scientific meetings or to perform much of the research they came to NCI to do.

Although the shutdown has been felt most acutely by our staff and investigators in the intramural program, the effects on the extramural research community are likely to become progressively greater as the situation persists.  Presently, the vast majority of NCI’s extramural staff is furloughed, which means that many NCI staff members are unable to provide their usual administrative and programmatic support services to extramural grantees.  Furthermore, many grantees, especially those responsible for planning collaborative work, including clinical trials, have been limited in their abilities to conduct important meetings that require NCI staff and support.  Still, we have been able to exempt from furlough some program officers who provide oversight and guidance for clinical trials that were initiated prior to the shutdown.  Moreover, the length of the shutdown has not been great enough to affect most ongoing research activities at extramural sites.  Since the Payment Management System has remained operational, we also continue to process requests to obtain expected funds for most of the grants awarded to our extramural investigators.  However, that may not be possible if an award was made with restrictive terms or if a request triggers a need for additional interactions.

Now that the shutdown is nearing the end of its second week, however, further consequences are coming into view.  While grant applications can be accepted and stored at, the NIH Office of Extramural Research has discouraged submissions, and applications will not be processed further until normal business operations are restored through Congressional appropriations.  (See the OER’s message at

Furthermore, NCI’s Division of Extramural Activities (DEA) has postponed until undetermined dates several site visits to evaluate re-competing centers and large grant applications, and it has postponed more than a dozen meetings to review grant applications.   Thus, the NCI’s grant review cycle could be significantly delayed, threatening a smooth restart of NCI’s support of extramural research, even if the NIH reopens relatively soon.

This situation could have serious effects on the review and funding of virtually all NCI programs, including NCI-designated Cancer Centers, program project and SPORE grants, training awards, and individual research project grants.  Questions or concerns about these matters should be sent to [several named NIH officials].  

Part of the reason I am writing at this time is to prepare you for the possibility that we at the NCI (and presumably others at the NIH) will be asking reviewers and advisors to adapt to abrupt and inconvenient changes in the scheduling of meetings to review grant applications and oversee programs.  These changes may require you to alter long-standing plans to attend worthwhile events.  But avoiding a major crisis in grant-making and program development this year may be possible only if all members of the NCI communities are willing to help alleviate the consequences of the shutdown.

Needless to say, all of us at the NCI hope that the current situation is resolved quickly, but we have no way to know when the shutdown will end.  In the meantime, I encourage all of you to monitor major media outlets regularly, as we do, for updates on the status of federal operations.  As long as the shutdown continues, the NCI will remain committed to advancing our common cause---research to control cancer---as best we can within the limits of the law.  Your patience, persistence, and flexibility are very much appreciated during this unhappy and uncertain time.

Harold Varmus

Director, NCI

The extra message from the researcher who sent this on to me:

Mr. Fallows,

As an  oncologist, I'd like to share with you this email from Harold Varmus, Director of the National Cancer Institute.  It will give you an idea of how the cancer research community—and therefore current and future cancer patients—are affected by the shutdown.

Second, I wanted to share a thought, prompted by the maps from the "reader in California" that appear in [this post]. One of the motivations behind Muslim extremism, I believe, is the sense of being left behind that exists in much of the Arab and Muslim world.  Looking at the maps in your post, I can't help but think that one of the motivations behind Tea Party extremism is the sense of being left behind—in numerous cultural, economic and sociodemographic ways--that likely exists in those areas of America whose representatives are pushing to defund Obamacare.

Obviously there is a lot more to say on this researcher's second point. For the moment, remember that a small number of politicians are inflicting this damage on countless millions of people in America and around the world. And the situation could have been solved at any point if John Boehner had only brought a budget measure for a vote in the House.