Our nation’s research enterprise faces two threats beyond its control, and one is entirely avoidable. It is difficult to comprehend the many ways research operations at colleges and universities across the country – supported by federal research agencies – have been upended due to COVID-19. Some projects have been suspended, while others have stalled permanently. Once-certain paths forward for innovative, life-changing research are now overshadowed by uncertainty. This funding unpredictability is a threat to our researchers, economy, and all future innovation. In an already uncertain time, we cannot fund our federal research agencies at a stop-and-go pace.
Unfortunately, Americans are all too familiar with stop-gap funding. In the last eight years, Congress has passed 33 continuing resolutions (CR). These lingering consequences are being amplified by current COVID-related disruptions on campuses across the country. With Congress again punting funding negotiations to December, the federal research agencies that work in close partnership with universities are operating on budgets set well before the pandemic took hold. That means projects in coordination with agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may be left unfulfilled if funding runs dry.
This is serious cause for concern. A new report from the Council on Governmental Relations (COGR) estimates that research activity at universities has already decreased by 20 to 40 percent due to COVID-19, a downturn which could result in billions of dollars in losses across the research enterprise. Though there is still time left, in this new reality, funding for scientific research is already behind and universities are feeling the strain.
At Yale University, quantum materials researchers working in partnership with NSF have been delayed by at least six months after lab renovations were halted and facilities housed at National Laboratories had been shut down due to the pandemic. And at the University of Kansas, researchers were already operating on a tight timeline to develop “proof of concept” for a technology that may revolutionize disease testing and management. Due to public health guidelines, they are working on critically reduced lab capacity, are at least six months behind schedule, and will miss the upcoming milestone for their startup’s licensing agreement. On top of that, the delays may inhibit the researchers’ ability for NIH funding.
Now more than ever, we’re relying on science to keep Americans healthy, help the economy recover, and inform public health decisions. To be clear, some areas of scientific research were kicked into overdrive, and researchers across the country worked to develop treatments, vaccines, and emergency ventilators, and personal protective equipment to support those one the frontline to combat the coronavirus pandemic. But many non-COVID projects look significantly different than they did six months ago, which will have long-term consequences without additional federal support. An entire generation of our STEM workforce is contending with changed deadlines and budget constraints when their labs have been reduced to their laptops.
Last year’s federal appropriations won’t be enough to cover the losses research institutions are facing in light of COVID-19, much less finance new research projects. Long-term, sustained, and predictable federal funding would prevent the consequences of a “pandemic normal,” and passing emergency relief funding that prioritizes our research enterprise, coupled with a full-year spending package, is essential to getting researchers back on course.
We need leadership in Congress to address the immediate needs of the research community along with a full-year spending deal to fund our federal research agencies. Rebuilding from these disruptions will ultimately take years, but it does not have to come at the expense of transformative scientific research. Congress should redouble our commitment to funding the research that saves lives, creates jobs, and, ultimately, puts the United States at the forefront of discovery.