We are in the middle of an unpredictable and unprecedented time as the world grapples with the COVID-19 public health crisis. Every aspect of our daily lives is impacted and campus life at America’s universities has been turned upside down. Students have been adjusting to distance learning – many for the rest of the semester – and university researchers and faculty are conducting research outside of the physical laboratories to the best of their ability. While we all adapt to these uncertain times, one thing remains consistently clear: the determination and ingenuity of America’s research universities is unwavering.
Member institutions of The Science Coalition (TSC) are conducting research at an extraordinary pace to find treatments for COVID-19 and mitigate future infections – many in close coordination with federal research agencies including the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Critical moments like these remind us how American research universities play an invaluable role at the forefront of public health crises.
At my institution, Stony Brook University, researchers are working with two national labs, DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory, to develop a computer model to fast-track the discovery of drugs to treat COVID-19. This research seeks to understand the interaction between proteins and receptors within the cells of the virus at an extremely detailed level. With the combined expertise of Stony Brook and DOE, along with our national labs’ computational resources, the results may lead to future treatments that could save lives.
On the other side of the country, the University of Washington is collecting plasma from adults who have recovered from COVID-19 to investigate if it can be used to help treat certain patients, including those suffering from severe infections or those who cannot make their own antibodies. Additionally, researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center are working in partnership with NIH to build upon previous research to develop an antiviral treatment that was tested during the Ebola outbreak, which may be an effective treatment for COVID-19.
Along with biomedical research, our nation’s research institutions are leading the charge in supporting health care workers, first responders, and all essential personnel on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. As our health care system struggles to manage an influx of patients and a shortage of medical supplies and tests, universities have been stepping in full force. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a team of researchers designed an emergency ventilator that could match that of commercial ventilators – in less than a week.
This represents just a handful of innovative COVID-19-related projects happening right now at TSC institutions – and it’s all built upon the fundamental research our universities have been conducting for years. Even our ability to work from home during COVID-19 is rooted in a long history and strong partnership between university computer scientists and NSF.
There’s no doubt that fundamental research creates the foundation for all future innovation and discoveries, and more than half of this research is conducted at America’s leading research universities. It’s an unfortunate reality that because fundamental research does not directly result in a tangible discovery, investments from the private sector are often negligible. That’s why federal funding is critical in order to keep these long-term, life-changing research projects moving full speed ahead. In fact, many of the innovations used today to alleviate the stress of COVID-19 were funded by key federal research agencies a long time ago, like the personal protective equipment Penn State University has created through its 3D printing capabilities – made possible by funding years ago from the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Moments like these demonstrate the critical role the federal government plays in producing cutting-edge research alongside our universities. The volume and force with which TSC research institutions have answered the national and international call to provide answers is unmatched, but without robust, predictable, and sustained federal funding, we cannot guarantee our ability to show up in the future. Federal research agencies, including DOE, NSF, and NIH, are key partners in our efforts.
Fundamental research takes time, but the payoff is tremendous. When we finally put the COVID-19 crisis behind us, scientists and researchers will already have begun the work to mitigate – and possibly avoid – future public health crises.
This article also appeared in The Hill.