In DepthCOVID-19

U.S. academic research funding stays healthy despite pandemic

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Science  19 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6497, pp. 1298
DOI: 10.1126/science.368.6497.1298

Science's COVID-19 coverage is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

The coronavirus pandemic has put U.S. higher education in a deep financial hole, triggering hiring freezes, benefit cuts, and a slew of other cost-cutting measures designed to offset huge projected revenue losses. Yet amid the uncertainty about state aid, the supply of foreign students, and other intangibles, one revenue stream has remained healthy: the money universities receive from others—especially the federal government—to carry out research. That fact looms large in any effort to forecast the long-term impact of COVID-19 on U.S. academic research.

In 2018, the federal government provided 53% of the $79 billion spent on research on U.S. campuses, and federal spending has actually increased during the pandemic. This spring, Congress included an additional $3.6 billion for research related to COVID-19 in a string of economic relief packages. Academic leaders are hoping legislators will add to that total in the next stimulus package.

Such developments have put research administrators like Chris Cramer in an enviable position during ongoing budget meetings with other senior academic officers. “These days, I'm the only one who gets to say that, even with large error bars, none of my projected numbers are in the red,” says Cramer, who oversees the University of Minnesota's $870 million portfolio of sponsored research.


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University of Michigan researchers have their temperatures taken as part of new health and safety procedures.

PHOTO: ROGER HART/MICHIGAN PHOTOGRAPHY

In part, that's because the pandemic has had little impact on the U.S. government's machinery for awarding grants, even as the number of U.S. COVID-19 cases has surpassed 2 million. At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which provides about two-thirds of all federal funding for academic research, “We went to 100% virtual peer review [of grant proposals] practically overnight, and it's gone remarkably well,” says Michael Lauer, the agency's director of extramural research.

A temporary change in the rules for managing federal grants has also helped buoy academic research. For the past 3 months, institutions have been allowed to continue to pay the salaries of researchers on grants even if their labs have been shuttered.

The 19 March directive, part of a broader strategy to save jobs, reflects the fact that federal grants have always covered much more than the cost of just running experiments or collecting field data. Grantees are also paid for analyzing data, writing papers, supervising students and postdocs, and submitting proposals for new and follow-up studies—work that can all be done from home. (The guidelines were set to expire as Science went to press, but could be extended.)

At Johns Hopkins University, which carries out more sponsored research—some $2.5 billion—than any other university in the country, President Ronald Daniels warned this spring of a possible $475 million budget shortfall next year. The bulk of it comes from the suspension of elective procedures at Johns Hopkins's vast network of hospitals and clinics and will be borne by physicians.

The impact on research will be comparatively small, his analysis suggests. A 1-year hiring freeze will save $40 million, Daniels predicted. But the unceasing competition among top research institutions to attract talent and funding all but guarantees that there will be exceptions. “The university must emerge from this crisis stronger, and making strategically important faculty hires is crucial to that end,” a university spokesperson says.

Although many institutions are still figuring out what the fall semester will look like for undergraduates, almost all have already begun to reopen their labs. This week the University of Michigan, which ranks second to Johns Hopkins in sponsored research spending, entered the third phase of a four-step plan to reopen, by the end of the month, all 50 of its research buildings, housing some 5000 labs. “There's a bimodal distribution” of faculty attitudes toward the reopening, says Rebecca Cunningham, the school's vice president for research. “Some are trampling down the doors, and others have serious concerns.”

At most institutions, some types of research are still off-limits, including work involving human subjects and most field studies. Last week in Science, Cunningham and five other senior administrators from major research universities offered guidance to institutions on how to reopen labs safely. Their suggestions include performing health checks at entrances, controlling access, reducing density, revising work schedules, and requiring personal protective equipment and deep cleaning. “It's a new way of working,” Cunningham says, “like with grocery shopping. But people understand that it's necessary.”

Research will not emerge from the shutdown unscathed. NIH estimates $10 billion has simply “disappeared” from its budget as a result of lost productivity, Director Francis Collins told a Senate panel last month. Universities have also had to shoulder the unanticipated costs of shutting down and restarting research on their campuses.

A 330-member coalition of research advocates wants Congress to add $31 billion to NIH's current $41 billion budget to make up for such losses and to address infrastructure needs at NIH and around the country. Many of the same organizations are also seeking $46 billion in direct payments to universities to recoup lost revenues.

University officials hope the prominent role their scientists are playing in fighting the pandemic will help persuade lawmakers to provide the additional funding. “When have research universities ever been more in the news?” Cramer asks. “We're on the front pages every day.”

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