The Interview That Almost Got Shut Down in the Shutdown


“That was an interesting welcome to federal service,” Ned Sharpless told me when I asked him about how he handled his first government shutdown.

You see, Sharpless became director of the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, in mid-October. At that time, I thought it would be good to conduct a video interview with him because … well … he’s theNCI director. But I agreed to let him get his feet wet.

So we gave him a whole three months. That’s plenty of time to get a handle on a job he got through a presidential nomination to run a $5.3 billion operation, right? (He told me he’s still on his listening and learning tour.) After some back and forth, we settled on Jan. 24 as the day to do this.

Then the government shut down Saturday, Jan. 20.

And it remained shut down on Monday, Jan. 22. The NCI folks initially canceled, and with this schedule, there’s a good chance that a cancelation meant this interview wouldn’t have happened or I would have had to wait months. Fortunately, NCI’s press team was able to move forward as scheduled since the shutdown lasted only one business day.

Because it was so short, Sharpless told me this particular government shutdown wasn’t too disruptive and didn’t compromise the NCI’s mission of taking care of patients with cancer and easing the burden on patients with cancer. “Having said that, I hope to never go through this again.”

In this video and later off-camera but on the record, Sharpless discussed a wide range of topics from the “financial toxicity” that can stem from the high patient costs for cancer treatments—and what his institute can and can’t do about it—to data sharing, revamping on clinical trials, and why today’s researchers are poised do for cancer what Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch did for antibiotics and microbiomes.

You can read my story here.

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