This article also appeared in the Washington Examiner.
When Congress returns to Washington, America’s 560,000-strong research workforce, conducting fundamental research at public and private colleges and university campuses across the country, is counting on lawmakers to help them navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and current economic downturn. Today, many university researchers and students — not to mention, their projects — have been put off course as a result of closed facilities, reductions in occupancy and capacity, and a lack of predictable funding. More than $26 billion in emergency funding for federal research agencies is needed to help the American scientific enterprise weather this storm and come out on the other side intact.
The bipartisan “Research Investment to Spark the Economy Act,” or RISE Act, under consideration in the House of Representatives, and endorsed by the Science Coalition and numerous other higher education organizations, would authorize this much-needed funding for federal research agencies (there is currently no companion legislation in the Senate despite repeated calls from the scientific community). Without this funding, future scientific innovations and discoveries are at risk, including advancements in national security, cancer treatments, and digital agriculture, not to mention the impact to all the businesses, suppliers, and spin-off companies that are part of the university ecosystem.
This funding gap also poses a serious challenge for the next generation of our STEM workforce, which is essential to our long-term economic recovery and ability to compete in the global economy. Given that science and engineering accounts for 5% of all U.S. jobs, every effort should be made to avoid a shortage of STEM professionals at a time when the United States has already been slipping behind European and Asian countries in its competitive edge. Strategic, targeted federal investment in scientific research now is essential to protecting our competitive edge and ensuring we have the brilliant minds we need working on life-changing technologies to shape our future.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has already affected the backbone of the research enterprise — early-career scientists. At UC San Diego, more than 3,500 graduate student projects were temporarily suspended, and as many as 1,586 postdoctoral scholars have also been adversely affected. These projects cover a variety of disciplines, including biomedicine, environment, engineering, and social sciences. Without additional support, we risk losing out on the progress already made in these areas.
To protect the national investment we have already made, the RISE Act would authorize critical relief to the next generation of researchers by providing impacted graduate students and post-doctorate fellows an additional two years to finish their research and degrees if their studies have been impacted by the pandemic.
Other crucial needs include federal backing for research, support personnel, and covering basic operating costs for research facilities until such time as they are allowed to reopen and resume their pre-pandemic activities.
At Harvard University, labs studying issues from tuberculosis to Alzheimer’s, cancer, and planetary science had to stop their research. These are familiar stories for many research teams on campuses around the country, whose labs closed not only to protect their communities and flatten the curve but also to enable our focus on essential COVID-19 research.
Unfortunately, modifying research initiatives to fit current circumstances is not simple or cheap, and many will suffer the consequences years down the line. At Washington State University, the beginning of COVID-19 disruptions coincided with the tail end of several projects researchers were working on with the Department of Energy. With the agency’s rules around no-cost extensions, researchers may be prevented from writing future follow-on proposals.
Nothing about the turbulent situation impacting the research environment is hypothetical. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more evident than ever that research is an essential federal investment. We cannot enter a period of economic recovery without including support for our entire research ecosystem. Investing in research and the people who carry out that vital work is a decision Congress must be confident in making. Time is of the essence.
Lauren Brookmeyer is director of government relations at Stony Brook University and president of the Science Coalition.