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Charities that fund research face deep revenue declines

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Science  26 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6498, pp. 1412
DOI: 10.1126/science.368.6498.1412

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

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A fundraiser in which firefighters collect donations for muscular dystrophy research was canceled this year.


Early this year, University of Colorado, Denver, cancer researcher Patricia Ernst was thrilled when her postdoc Therese Vu won a grant from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, a nonprofit that has pumped more than $1.2 billion into blood cancer research since its founding in 1949. The funding would allow the scientists to launch studies using a technique to generate malignant leukemia from immature blood cells—an approach that Ernst had been eager to try for more than a decade. Then, last month, the pair got bad news: The philanthropic group canceled the grant, citing “unprecedented” revenue losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I did anticipate there would be cutbacks,” Ernst says. “But I didn't think it would be that serious, and I didn't think it would happen to us.”

Many researchers are having similar experiences. Foundations that fund biomedical research in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere are reporting record revenue drops because of the pandemic. One major factor: It has forced them to cancel key fundraising events, including galas, walks, Broadway partnerships, and even an event that sends thousands of U.S. firefighters into the streets, asking passersby to support medical research by dropping donations into a rubber boot. Many groups are trying to stem the losses by cutting staff and delaying, trimming, or outright canceling grants to researchers.

The chaos imperils a small, but pivotal, part of the scientific ecosystem. Although nonprofits provide just 5% of overall U.S. research funding, they often support small, high-risk pilot studies that later enable researchers to attract larger grants from government funders. And many of the grants go to young researchers, helping them launch their careers. “If you're in a room with researchers of vascular disease, almost all of them will say their first grant came from [us],” says Mariell Jessup, chief science and medical officer at the American Heart Association (AHA).

So far, Jessup says, AHA has been fortunate: Although donations have dropped, the $890 million organization hasn't had to lay people off or rescind grants—but it has postponed awarding a new round of grants.

The red ink is drowning other U.S. groups. At the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which last year spent about $40 million of its $190 million budget on research, officials forecast a $60 million shortfall in 2020; they've given 78 of their 198 grantees a 15% “haircut.” Susan G. Komen, the largest nonprofit funder of breast cancer research, has laid off about 20% of its 211 employees, closed 30 of its 61 local affiliates, and tabled future grant cycles. The Muscular Dystrophy Association, which counts on its annual “Fill the Boot” fundraiser with firefighters for 25% of its annual revenue, has furloughed many of its development staff and canceled plans to award new grants. At the $724 million American Cancer Society (ACS), a $200 million drop in revenue has prompted it to lay off 1000 of its some 4300 employees. “If current trends continue,” chief medical officer William Cance says, ACS could temporarily cut research funding by half.

In the United Kingdom, the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), whose members last year sent £1.9 billion to biomedical researchers (compared with £1.8 billion in funding provided by the U.K. government), is reporting a 38% drop in fundraising revenue. That has forced groups to withdraw or defer grants, says AMRC CEO Aisling Burnand. Cancer Research UK, which funds half of the country's noncommercial cancer research, has cut its funding by about 10%, or £44 million, says CEO Michelle Mitchell. The cuts will get deeper if charities do not receive more support from the government, she adds. And the crisis could have long-lasting ripple effects on the next generation of research. “We're in danger of destroying a decade's worth of work, infrastructure, and future talent,” Mitchell says.

Vu, for example, had hoped to have gathered enough data from her pilot study by October to apply for a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Now, even if she can find replacement funding, she thinks it will be an additional 12 to 18 months before she can apply to NIH. And because the leukemia researcher is from Australia, a funding cutoff could imperil her U.S. work visa. “I don't want to be all ‘woe is me,’ but … the junior people have gotten hammered” by the disruption, Vu says.

The loss of nonprofit grants could also hurt researchers seeking funding for high-risk ideas that can't get support from government funders, says Maryrose Franko, CEO of the Health Research Alliance, which represents 85 nonprofit research funders. “We derisk research for the government, and we embrace failure,” Franko says. “If we're not funding it, who will?”

Correction (24 June 2020): An earlier version of this story misstated how many employees the American Cancer Society had before layoffs.

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