Research Ethics Roundup: Fallout from the US federal government shutdown, new allegations of unethical research, and more

By Maeve Luthin, JD, Professional Development Manager

Last week, the US federal government shutdown was suspended, and a temporary spending measure that guarantees operations funding through January 15 was signed into law. As government employees return to work, the effect of the shutdown is the subject of much discussion in the news. Discover the potential impact of the shutdown for biomedical research and more in this week’s Research Ethics Roundup.

Shutdown’s Science Fallout Could Last for Years: The impact of the federal government shutdown will continue indefinitely for scientists and those involved in the research enterprise system: for example, government agencies have been unable to effectively monitor flu and salmonella outbreaks; thousands of grant applications have been left unprocessed; data from real-time natural sciences research have been compromised; and clinical trials have been unable to enroll new subjects. Federal agency administrators expect delays in the processing of federal grant applications to continue in the weeks following the reopening of the government.

Medical Experiments Conducted on Bowery Alcoholics in 1950s: Two new papers have been published about an NIH-financed study of prostate cancer screening conducted on homeless alcoholics living in lower Manhattan in the 1950s and 1960s. The papers criticize the investigator for not properly informing subjects about the potential serious complications that could result from the surgical biopsies, and that treatment, for those diagnosed with prostate cancer, had not been proven to prolong life. The study team was also faulted for not using a control group.

Animal Research: A Balancing Act: Nature, in a recent editorial, warned that public policy decisions made over the past year, including NIH’s decision to decommission most of its chimpanzees, and the Italian parliament’s decision to ban xenotransplantation and the breeding of dogs, cats, and nonhuman primates for research purposes, may drastically change the future of biomedical research. Although there are some alternative in vitro and in vivo research models for certain procedures, new tools will be needed to investigate certain aspects of diseases and cell culture systems that cannot currently be replicated.

Tax Dollars Save Lives – And Cuts, Shutdown Risk Them: In an opinion piece, University of Michigan Health System chief executive officer and executive vice president for medical affairs Ora Pescovitz examines the long term impact of federal research funding cuts, the sequestration, and shutdown. The US government’s $3.8 billion investment in the Human Genome Project led to a $141 return for every dollar spent, as well as significant advances in the sciences. By not making similar investments now, there will be a decrease in the development and production of new drugs, treatments, and therapies, leading to a projected $200 billion loss, as well as an increase in future Medicare and Medicaid spending.

Catch other Research Ethics Roundup posts here.