Pandemic impacts US research enterprise, federal investment needed

While the nation’s research universities have risen to the challenge and are responding effectively to the pandemic, there remain significant short- and long-term impacts to the nation’s university research enterprise, according to testimony provided to Congress by Washington State University Vice President for Research Christopher Keane.

Keane testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s “Building Back the U.S. Research Enterprise: COVID-19 Impacts and Recovery” hearing on Thursday, Feb. 25. In Keane’s capacity as VPR at WSU, he serves as chair of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) Council on Research (COR). He represented WSU and APLU’s 199 U.S. member institutions at the hearing.

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has oversight of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, and research efforts across the federal government. The hearing lasted three hours and included testimony from Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Felice J. Levine, executive director for the American Educational Research Association, and Thomas Quaadman, executive vice president for the Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Following oral testimonies provided by the four witnesses, committee members asked follow up questions, which ranged from what is needed to stay globally competitive in research to how funding will address challenges that has risen as a result of the pandemic.

Impacts of the Pandemic on the Nation’s Public and Land-Grant Universities, Innovation Pipeline

The nation relies on its universities to train the next generation of researchers essential to the innovation pipeline that translates fundamental research advances to achievements that benefit the lives of our people every day. Financial impacts associated with the pandemic has significantly impacted hiring and staffing, with short- and long-term impacts to the innovation pipeline.

“COVID-19 has impacted faculty members, postdocs, technicians, and graduate students in numerous ways, including student education progress, career development of faculty and staff, work-life balance, the development of collaborations and partnerships, and immigration status,” said Keane.

Numerous studies have shown that women researchers are most impacted by the pandemic, due to the majority of women also serving the role of caregivers for children and elders. As a result, the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of women researchers who are trying to manage work-life balance, while shouldering the bulk of the domestic family responsibilities.

“A January 2021 National Bureau of Economic Research study with over 20,000 Ph.D. respondents indicated that women academic researchers lost roughly double the daily time devoted to research compared to male academics. The trends are accentuated for academics with younger children, especially pre-tenure women with children. This will have long lasting impacts on the career trajectory of women faculty,” said Keane.

Additionally, smaller public institutions that serve low income, minority, or first generation students, as well as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) have also felt the impacts of the pandemic. Lower university resources at smaller institutions prevented wide-scale COVID-19 testing and vaccination, which inhibited return to research activity. Institutions with smaller research portfolios often do not have resources to invest in rapid response projects while many larger institutions were able to fund such projects internally. HBCUs also generally operate with resource limitations, which necessitate having teaching and research personnel with high workloads operating with often outdated infrastructure and technologies.

“Support is needed for a series of strategic personnel hires to ensure cultivation of a critical mass of highly qualified faculty – with an eye toward building and retaining interdisciplinary and collaborative research teams to drive research enterprise at small- and medium-sized institutions,” said Keane.

APLU Universities Have “Risen to the Challenge” of Combating the Pandemic

The nation’s public and land-grant universities played critical roles in supporting communities, states, and the nation in the campaign against SARS-CoV-2. This includes conducting research directly applicable to mitigation of COVID-19. It also includes testing, support of campus and community vaccination efforts, epidemiological studies, and other activities needed to support resumption of university programs in a safe manner while simultaneously working to ensure the health of surrounding communities.

“An APLU member survey found that APLU institutions spent over $3.1 billion on safety measures including COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, face masks, cleaning, and operating quarantine dorms through the spring and fall 2020 semesters,” said Keane.

The bulk of APLU universities implemented some form of coronavirus testing in the spring and summer of 2020. This testing provided an understanding of disease spread within the campus and local community for both public health purposes and university decision-making regarding the resumption of on-campus instruction, research, and other activities.

“Since its summer 2020 launch at WSU as a testing facility, the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (WADDL) has processed more than 25,500 samples from WSU faculty, staff, and students,” said Keane. “In total, WADDL has processed over 67,000 samples from eastern Washington.”

Looking Ahead – Transition to the “New Normal” and Congressional Support

While Congressional support has been helpful, the pandemic has nonetheless impacted university finances, infrastructure, and the ability for public and land-grant universities to pursue their missions generally. Without supplemental research funding, the contributions of research universities to America’s health, economy and national security will be impaired for a long time to come.

“APLU members saw a total of $20.8 billion in revenue losses and expenses related to safety measures,” said Keane. “To help fill the funding gaps, Congress provided APLU institutions with $1.7 billion in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and $4 billion in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act funding for institutional expenses and losses. Even with the $5.7 billion in Congressional support, the 199 public research universities that comprise APLUS’s membership collectively face a $15.1 billion funding gap as a result of the pandemic.”

Keane’s testimony urged Congress to support and pass the Research Investment to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act, which would provide $25 billion to federal agencies to support independent research institutions, public laboratories and universities throughout the country to continue work on thousands of federally-backed projects impacted by the pandemic. He also encouraged representatives to pass the Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act, which would create a new postdoctoral fellowship program at NSF to support early-career researchers whose opportunities have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It would also acknowledge and mitigate the impacts arising from changes in traditional career paths.

“Failure to provide this funding now will force federal research agencies to make difficult decisions between funding the completion of existing research projects or funding new projects,” said Keane. “Some federal agencies are already planning for this possibility. Rescuing the nation’s scientific research enterprise and supporting new research should not be an ‛either-or’ choice – both are vital to our nation’s health, security, and economic competitiveness and recovery.”

Making full use of our national talent is not only critical to recovery, but also to advancing the U.S. research enterprise and remaining competitive globally. China’s current annual R&D expenditure growth exceeds that of the U.S. by roughly $60 billion, more than double the total request for the RISE Act.

“Even if all the RISE Act funds were applied to federally funded research, China would remain on a path to exceed U.S. R&D expenditures – ultimately threatening our position as the world leader in the innovation economy,” said Keane.

Both pieces of legislation are critical to the prevention of loss of research and talent due to any economic disruptions that may have occurred due to the public health emergency. Investment in our academic research institutions is vital. The growth of the U.S. economy and our leadership around the world depends on our nation’s continued ability to lead in scientific discovery and technological innovation.

“It is imperative that APLU, similar organizations, and university leaders work closely with public and private sector colleagues to address these challenges and develop a robust vision and plan for supporting our nation’s public and land-grant research universities following the pandemic,” said Keane. “The health of the nation’s research ecosystem – and the innovation and enhanced quality of life that arises from it – are at stake.”