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Congress criticises blanket pandemic payout for universities

Emergency funding for institutions should have been means tested, Democrat lawmakers say

Democrat lawmakers have accused the Department of Education of “squandering” emergency pandemic relief funding for universities by providing a uniform grant of $500,000, regardless of institutions’ needs.

In a letter to education secretary Betsy DeVos, Democrat senator Patty Murray and representative Rosa Delauro said the department should reverse the blanket funding it had paid out to all institutions.

According to the lawmakers, this baseline funding amounts to more than 90 per cent of the roughly $350 million reserved for institutions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which was signed into law on 27 March.

The decision to spread the handout thinly among nearly 1,000 higher education institutions, regardless of the impact of Covid-19 on those campuses, “threatens to eliminate the benefit of these critical funds,” the lawmakers said.

DeVos made a statement after the payout, asking wealthy universities to pay back the emergency funding and saying she had been forced by Congress to pay out to all institutions, regardless of their need.

A department spokesperson told Research Professional News: “Congress directed the secretary to distribute [Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education] with a priority and to distribute funds based on ‘demonstrat[ion] of significant unmet needs related to expenses association with coronavirus’ and with a priority on institutions receiving less than $500,000 in [Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund] funds. In order to receive this funding, an institution will need to request it. Once the requests are processed, the remaining money will be distributed through a competitive grant process.”

The criticism of the Cares Act payouts came as Anthony Fauci, a high-profile public health adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told universities to decide themselves when to reopen.

“I don’t think it’s going to be one size fits all,” Fauci reportedly said in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, adding that the makeup of an institution’s student body and its location would need to be considered in such decisions.

He said some university presidents had suggested testing all students for Covid-19 on their return to campus, followed by rolling tests of smaller samples of the student population to monitor the prevalence of the disease.

The White House has continued to face harsh criticism from Congress on its handling of the pandemic. Democrat senators criticised a recent report into the White House’s testing strategy, which they summarised as “deny the truth that there aren’t enough tests and supplies, reject responsibility and dump the burden onto the states”.

Leading Democrats and Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have urged president Donald Trump to prepare and publicise a plan to vaccinate Americans as soon a suitable vaccine is made available.

The president dismissed a study by researchers at Columbia University, which found that 36,000 US lives could have been saved if social distancing measures had been introduced a week earlier.

“Columbia is an institution that’s very liberal,” Trump said, adding that the research was “just a political hit job”.

US researchers are pushing back against perceived political interference in their work. Over 30 scholarly societies wrote to the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, asking him to reconsider the decision to cancel an NIH project looking into wild coronavirus populations in China.

The decision to terminate the research project, which included collaborators based in Wuhan, where the SARS-Cov-2 virus is thought to have first infected a human, was motivated by a discredited theory that the virus was created as a bioweapon, the letter suggests.

Its cancellation “sets a dangerous precedent by revoking a grant that was awarded based upon scientific merit without a justifiable rationale,” the societies said. “This grant is highly and uniquely relevant…to address the current Covid-19 pandemic,” they added.

Research Professional News has asked the NIH for comment.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe