180 congressmen support call for US$26bn research support

More than 180 members of the United States Congress have signed a letter urging leaders of the House of Representatives to include in the next COVID-19 relief legislation US$26 billion to cover research costs, citing the critical importance of the 560,000-strong research workforce to “state and local economies as research universities, academic medical centres, independent research institutes and national labs are major employers in all 50 states”.

Addressed to Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, and Kevin McCarthy, minority leader of the House, the letter, a bipartisan initiative, says Congress must act “to preserve our current scientific workforce and ensure that the US is prepared to continue our global scientific leadership once this crisis ends”.

Initiated by US Representatives Diana DeGette, (Democrat-Colorado) and Fred Upton (Republican-Michigan), the letter calls for the fourth relief package to include US$26 billion in funding to cover:

• Supplements for research grants and contracts (ie, cost extensions) due to COVID-19 related impacts, including the need for additional salary support and-or research related ramp-up costs.

• Provision of emergency relief to sustain research support personnel and base operating costs for core research facilities and user-funded research services until such time as facilities reopen and research activities return to pre-pandemic activity levels.

• Fund additional graduate student and postdoc fellowships, traineeships and research assistantships for up to two years. Graduate students who could not complete their degrees due to pandemic-related impacts should be given priority for graduate fellowships and other forms of support so they can complete their research and degrees.

The Congressmen urge the House to address the challenges faced by the US scientific research workforce during the COVID-19 crisis.

“While COVID-19 related research is now in overdrive, most other research has been slowed down or stopped due to pandemic-induced closures of campuses and laboratories. We are deeply concerned that the people who comprise the research workforce – graduate students, postdocs, principal investigators and technical support staff – are at risk,” they say.

“While federal rules have allowed researchers to continue to receive their salaries from federal grant funding, their work has been stopped due to shuttered laboratories and facilities and many researchers are currently unable to make progress on their grants.

“Additionally, researchers will need supplemental funding to support an additional four months’ salary, as many campuses will remain shuttered until the fall, at the earliest. Many core research facilities – typically funded by user fees – sit idle. Still others have incurred significant costs for shutting down their labs, donating the personal protective equipment to frontline health care workers and cancelling planned experiments.

“Congress must act to preserve our current scientific workforce and ensure that the US is prepared to continue our global scientific leadership once this crisis ends.”

They argue that supporting the people of the US scientific and medical research community will help stimulate the US economy in the near term by keeping these workers employed.

“Protecting the research workforce is critical to state and local economies as research universities, academic medical centres, independent research institutes and national labs are major employers in all 50 states. In the long term, these researchers are essential to protecting our nation’s public health, national security, economic growth and international competitiveness. Preserving our scientific infrastructure and protecting our innovation pipeline will help ensure US leadership in the world,” they say.

America’s leading research universities generate ground-breaking scientific knowledge and their research also plays a substantial and immediate role in the US economy.

The Institute for Research on Innovation and Science (IRIS), using detailed spending data from 400,000 funded research projects at 33 universities representing more than 41% of all university research and development spending in the country, estimates that in fiscal years 2018-19, all US universities:

• Spent nearly US$14 billion of direct cost research dollars on goods and services in all 435 congressional districts to support on-campus research activities.

• Of that amount, approximately US$3.7 billion was spent with businesses in the same state as the university that conducted the research.

• More than US$2.5 billion was spent in purchases from manufacturing firms, a figure equivalent to US$203 per employee.

It is estimated from IRIS data that American universities used research funds to pay more than 560,000 people on campuses across the country. Of these, more than 300,000 (53%) are students or trainees and fewer than one in five (17%) are faculty members and the remaining 30% are research staff.

In 44 states research universities are one of the five biggest employers. University research pays more people across the country than either aerospace manufacturing, utilities, airlines or the film industry.

“Our research universities have long been drivers of local and national economic growth,” said Lauren Brookmeyer, president of the Science Coalition, representing more than 50 of the nation’s leading public and private research universities, and director of government relations at Stony Brook University.

“We applaud these members of Congress – including our Champions of Science – for their continued support for robust, predictable federal funding of scientific research. We urge House leadership to support this commitment to the American scientific enterprise.”

She added that, thanks to strong partnerships with federal research agencies, the Science Coalition institutions are also “leading the charge to address the COVID-19 pandemic, from developing a vaccine and treatments to supplying medical equipment to frontline workers. The fundamental research currently underway at our universities and colleges is not just essential for addressing the current crisis, but also for the next public health emergency.”

The fourth stimulus package will focus on recovery, including infrastructure, but is unlikely to be passed before the end of this month. The first three stimulus packages focused on the emergency and mitigation.

On 7 April, in a joint letter to the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States Congress, Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities; Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities; David Skorton, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges; and Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, also issued a call for an extra US$26 billion in funding to support US research in any new stimulus package.