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updated 4/8/2011 3:48:54 PM ET 2011-04-08T19:48:54

When New York City lost power in 2003, security guards at Columbia University's medical center had to trawl the dimly lit halls to kick out all the lab workers. There's no snowstorm fierce enough or holiday sacred enough to keep a dedicated scientist away from work. And yet, if the government shuts down in the coming days, many publicly funded scientists will have to stay home stewing as their clinical research goes stale on the shelves.

Although no researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) clinical centers were authorized to comment officially, uncertainty has gripped many of them as they wonder whether their projects will win the coveted "essential" label, or slip into limbo.

"It's very frustrating. Everyone is demoralized," said one senior NIH researcher who spoke to LiveScience on the condition of anonymity.

The agency has been very quiet about who gets to make these decisions, but has indicated to its staff that much of the work will simply have to stop. For clinical researchers, the interruptions could be devastating, potentially threatening patient participation. [ Dark Side of Medical Research: Widespread Bias and Omissions ]

Patients are a precious but finicky resource, according to Leonard Scinto, a retired Harvard University neurologist. It can be challenging, even without disruptions, to persuade patients to stick with a clinical trial until the end. And even minor problems in scheduling can give patients the excuses they need to drop out.

Scinto, who now runs clinical trials for a private company studying Alzheimer's disease, put himself in the shoes of a public employee facing uncertainties about funding. "You could conceivably lose patients. They could easily drop out and that would ruin your sample," he told LiveScience.

Animal work and molecular biology are likely to fare even worse during a government shutdown, Scinto said. If they get the plug pulled on them, researchers at these labs will have no idea when they can return, forcing them to freeze what samples they can and throw out the rest. Most experiments that get interrupted will probably just have to be trashed and restarted. "If you lose a month, you lose a year's worth of data. It's really horrific," he said.

Of course, data is time.

And time is money.

For more science news follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience .

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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