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Pandemic ‘could undercut financing of US research support’


Analysis finds stability of external grants ‘masks concerns’ over impact of Covid-19 on research offices

Research support at US universities could be the area of research that is at greatest financial risk due to Covid-19, according to an analysis of how the pandemic will impact academic research budgets.

The cost of the pandemic to US universities is estimated to already be reaching tens of billions of dollars, due to the shuttering of facilities, cancelled experiments and loss of research staff.

“For universities that are faced with cuts, a key question is how best to manage these without affecting the research enterprise strategically,” said Roger Schonfeld from the not-for-profit academic services group Ithaka S+R, which carried out the analysis.

In a report published on 25 February, Schonfeld and colleague Jane Radecki said that externally funded research “has been the most reliable and resilient major source of revenue for large US universities”. But they warned that this picture of stable external research budgets “may mask a set of concerns”, pointing to problems with internal funding models for research services.

“Whatever the resiliency of research revenues, there are nevertheless important risks,” wrote Radecki and Schonfeld. “Most of these risks are concentrated in essential research support and enablement functions, because of how they are funded.”

Risky situation

With a lack of adequate financing for research support in most external grants, the most common way for universities to pay for research support is from their general funds. Radecki and Schonfeld said that with university funding sources such as tuition fees and state government support under pressure during the pandemic, this puts research services in a particularly risky situation.

“In the case of the research library, there is already substantial quantitative evidence of budget cuts,” they wrote. “There is every reason to anticipate that these cuts will not only continue but deepen next year.”

An earlier report from Ithaka S+R found that some universities are facing “devastating” budget cuts due to the pandemic. Senior staff at such universities said they expected to make “extensive cuts to the research office even though revenues from research activities are steady or growing”. The same report found increasing pressures on research offices, such as government demands for increased reporting regarding research security and foreign influences.

Advocacy groups have been pressuring lawmakers to provide additional funds to cover the costs of research disrupted by the pandemic, which so far have not been incorporated in any stimulus packages passed by Congress.

A further relief package worth nearly $2 trillion is expected to include an additional $600 million for the National Science Foundation, and $150m for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, according to a news report from the journal Science. The package is due to be voted on in the House of Representatives later this week.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe