The U.S. research community is urgently asking the White House and Congress to take steps aimed at keeping academic research afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.
Four organizations representing the nation’s major research institutions and medical schools today wrote to Congressional leaders, urging them to increase research spending at federal science agencies by some 15%, or $13 billion, in order to prevent students and researchers in all scientific disciplines from going broke, to help closed laboratories re-start once the pandemic eases, and to cover other unanticipated costs to the academic research enterprise.
“We anticipate significant impacts on research personnel and students and their work but, given the great uncertainties about the duration of the crisis, we cannot comprehensively quantify all the costs at this time,” wrote the leaders of the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the American Council on Education. But they suggest a massive pandemic-related spending bill now making its way through Congress offers an opportunity to “allow our members to continue to lead in the battle against COVID-19 and ensure that our other research on behalf of the American people will not suffer during these unprecedented times.”
They recommend that the additional funds, which would be added to approximately $85 billion the federal government currently spends on basic and applied research, “be divided among the major federal agencies based on the size of their extramural research budgets.” In practice, that means that the largest funders of academic research, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA and the departments of energy and defense, would get the largest amounts. Researchers could request the funds to deal with COVID-19 related expenses.
A plea to ease regulatory burden
The 19 March letter comes a day after U.S. university leaders urged the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to alter the rules governing federal oversight of research grants to help university officials cope with the huge disruptions to research on their campuses. On Wednesday, they asked officials to expand a 9 March OMB directive giving agencies greater flexibility in monitoring awards relating to COVID-19 so that it applies to the entire federal research enterprise, not just pandemic-related activities.
Beyond the delays caused by actual shutdowns of labs and other scientific facilities, universities are beginning to worry that grantees may not be able to carry out the research promised under the terms of their awards. It’s not just because investigators might run out of time — failing to finish specified work before their grant expires — because campuses have been closed. It’s also the extra pressure the pandemic has put on their budgets. By keeping graduate students, postdocs, and technicians on the payroll so they can feed their families and pay rent — even if they can’t do any work — faculty members may not have enough money left on their grants to complete their project even after the crisis eases.
“It’s like a research vessel tied up at the dock,” explains oceanographer David Conover, vice president for research at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “It costs a lot of money to maintain it, even if it’s not doing any work.”
Institutions also must follow extensive rules that require them to account for how every federal research dollar is spent. But the pandemic has created situations that nobody ever expected to encounter, says Wendy Streitz, president of the Council of Government Relations, a Washington, D.C. non-profit representing hundreds of research institutions. It helped craft the OMB letter and has posted a FAQ on how the pandemic already has affected federal regulatory policies.
Taken separately, the problems – including issues such as whether cancelled travel can be reimbursed by federal agencies — might seem trivial. But institutions take seriously their obligation to inform a funder immediately about anything that affects their ability to carry out the terms of any particular grant. Given the scope of the crisis, universities are asking OMB for a reasonable delay in such notification, along with perhaps some type of blanket exemption or extension for all federally supported projects.
They also want the changes to apply to every federal agency. “We appreciate that some federal agencies have already begun to release guidance,” noted the 18 March letter to OMB. “It is imperative that all agencies release guidance that is as uniform and consistent so as not to add to the already significant administrative and compliance burden institutions and researchers are facing in responding to this crisis.”
Research advocates are also hoping that the federal stimulus package now being assembled by Congress will go beyond helping academic researchers fight the pandemic. They envision something like the 2009 package aimed at helping the U.S. economy recover from the global financial crisis, which provides tens of billions for “shovel-ready” research projects across many fields.
“Certainly, we need money for COVID research,” says Toby Smith of AAU, which has been speaking to legislators. “But it needs to be much broader than that.”
In addition to supplementing existing awards for investigators who needed to spend more on salaries and supplies, he points to the cost of restarting labs and facilities that have been shut down, and having to repeat research that was interrupted mid-stream and can’t simply be resumed.
The longer the crisis lasts, notes Smith, the larger the impact on the overall scientific workforce, from doctoral students who can’t finish their dissertations to scientists at core user facilities that no longer have customers to pay the bills. And the ramifications for universities of an extended shutdown may be still broader, adds Conover.
“We’ve been able to maintain research operations” because Oregon is lagging the rest of the country in the number of reported cases of COVID-19, he says. But it will be shifting to online instruction after next week’s spring break, he adds, with the hope that students remain engaged. “As a public institution, we rely on tuition for revenue,” he says. Given a steady decline in state funding, any significant drop in fall enrollment would be another blow to the institution’s already precarious financial situation.