Science and Tech


A Shutdown Can Stall All Federal Science — Starting With Lab Rats

When a shutdown grinds the government to a halt, the fallout reaches everywhere — even lab rats at the bedrock of scientific and medical research.
Posted at 5:23 PM, Feb 06, 2018

It could be taxes, health care or immigration, but whatever issue leads to a government shutdown, any facility that depends on federal funding can be affected — even scientific and medical research.

Rats and mice are some of scientists' best tools. They're the go-to animal for understanding what cancer and infectious diseases can do to the human body.

"People not only use rats to do the basic research part of their studies, but for pre-clinical studies you need to have a small animal model," Professor Elizabeth Bryda said.

Bryda runs the Rat Resource and Research Center in Columbia, Missouri. The center gets federal funding to engineer and grow rats for researchers around the world.

But managing a population of research animals is expensive. When the government shut down in 2013, other labs, like those at the National Institutes of Health, were forced to euthanize thousands of animals when the money to care for them ran out.

Bryda's facility is unique in how well it can withstand shutdowns. It's closely affiliated with the University of Missouri and can get funding in other ways. But if a shutdown drags on too long, there could still be serious consequences.

"Let's say it was to the point where we had to eliminate all our live colonies," Bryda said. "... If we needed to get our colonies back up to speed so we had the right number of breeding cages back there, that could take up to a year."

That kind of a delay can effectively cancel whole experiments. Rodent researchers warn if a shutdown keeps the lights off long enough, they can lose months or years of scientific progress.

Even smaller delays can have big effects.

"Some of the things we do are very time-sensitive," Bryda said. "They need their animals at a particular age. If we can't ship when we say we're going to ship, then the animals become too old, and they potentially can't use them anymore. Those animals would be euthanized."

As long as the center can keep its doors open, the rats will ship out when they're supposed to. But not every lab — or lab rat — is so lucky. Ultimately, it's up to Congress to agree on long-term funding and to support the animals that keep its basic science running.