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Concerns deepen over amount of pandemic relief for US research


Limited research funding in coronavirus stimulus measures leads to cross-party fears of lasting consequences

Lawmakers and research leaders in the United States have expressed increasing alarm over the limited amount of financial relief for research in Covid-19 measures being considered by Congress, arguing that more funding must be found quickly to avoid long-term harm.

On 26 February, Frank Lucas, the senior Republican on the House science committee, criticised the limited research funds in a $1.9 trillion relief package rapidly making its way through Congress. “Only $600 million is allocated to helping the research industry recover from the pandemic,” Lucas said. “That’s less than half a percent [of the funding in the bill]”.

Lucas appeared to be referring to $600m that has been allocated to the National Science Foundation for new or existing research grants related to the pandemic.

The previous day, at a House science committee hearing on the impact of the pandemic on US research, Lucas said he was “so disappointed that in the $4tn in Covid spending that Congress has already passed, not one cent has gone to research relief”. Both Lucas and Eddie Bernice Johnson, chair of the committee, have unsuccessfully pushed for stimulus packages to include legislation providing $25 billion to restart disrupted research programmes.

At the committee hearing, Johnson said she was “deeply concerned” about the long-term consequences “if we don’t make the investments necessary to address the needs of our science agencies, universities, researchers and students”.

Unequal impacts

Both Johnson and Lucas are co-sponsoring the Supporting Early Career Researchers Act, which is focused on preventing junior researchers from dropping out of the research workforce by establishing a two-year grant programme at the National Science Foundation.

In testimony to the committee, Sudip Parikh, the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that “the time is now to invest in R&D and seize the opportunities to restore and expand the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce pipeline”.

“I cannot emphasise enough the importance of responding with urgency as soon as possible,” Parikh added, highlighting that the pandemic had exacerbated inequalities. “We must not set in motion a future where fewer women and minorities submit research grant proposals and research publications.”

Committee members were also presented with early results from a survey of nearly 6,000 early career researchers and doctoral students carried out by the American Educational Research Association and the Spencer Foundation. The survey found that one in four early career researchers had experienced a fall in wages, hours worked or income as a result of the pandemic, with one in five expecting further losses in the next year.

‘Either-or’ choice

Covid-19 stimulus packages have provided some relief for institutions for non-research-related costs.

Christopher Keane, who chairs the research council of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, said at the hearing that APLU members had benefited from $5.7bn in congressional support since the start of the pandemic but that there remained a shortfall of $15.1bn in lost revenue and Covid-related expenses.

Keane also doubled down on the urgency of providing supplemental research funding, saying that some federal research agencies were already weighing up the possibility of choosing between funding new projects or funding the completion of existing ones.

“Rescuing the nation’s scientific research enterprise and supporting new research should not be an ‘either-or’ choice,” Keane said.