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Massive U.S. coronavirus stimulus includes research dollars and some aid to universities

The $2 trillion stimulus package that the U.S. Senate is working to approve today is aimed at helping the country cope with the massive impact of the coronavirus pandemic. But it also includes at least $1.25 billion for federal research agencies to support scientists trying to better understand coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). In addition, it extends a financial hand to universities that have shut down because of the pandemic, some of which could go to support research that has been disrupted.

Details of the legislation have yet to emerge after Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress worked out their differences in negotiations that ran into the early morning. But a 22-page summary released by the Senate Appropriations Committee this morning contains these highlights:

  • The National Institutes of Health would receive $945 million for “vaccine, therapeutic, and diagnostic research” on COVID-19 as well as on “the underlying risks to cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions.”
  • The National Science Foundation would receive $76 million to supplement an ongoing program that allows scientists to jump into the field for pilot studies on all manner of natural disasters.
  • The Department of Energy’s Office of Science would get $99.5 million to cover the additional costs of operating user facilities at its national laboratories, including support for equipment and staff.
  • The U.S. Forest Service would get $3 million to “reestablish experiments impacted by travel restrictions” stemming from the pandemic, including an ongoing forest inventory.

In addition, three research agencies would receive a total of $86 million “to support continuity of operations” affected by COVID-19. NASA would receive $60 million for the costs of rescheduling scientific missions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would get $20 million to supplement “life and property related services” within its National Weather Service, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology would receive $6 million to support “research and measurement science” aimed at developing better diagnostics and testing of the coronavirus.

The big wild card in the stimulus package is a $14.25 billion allocation to support higher education. At least half of the money, which would come from the Department of Education, is earmarked for students. But the rest can be spent “to support institutions as they cope with the immediate effects of coronavirus and school closures.”

Several higher education organizations last week asked Congress to include $13 billion to cover disruptions in research stemming from the pandemic. That amount was meant to address the costs of shutting down and then ramping up research operations, they said, as well as myriad other expenses that range from providing online instruction to students who have been sent home to the loss of revenue from students no longer paying rent for living in university-owned housing.

The language in the stimulus bill “seems to give institutions some flexibility,” says one university lobbyist. “But we’re still trying to figure it out.”

Members of Congress are still working out final details of the bill, but are pushing to approve it and send it to President Donald Trump for his signature by the end of the week.