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Universities urge U.S. leaders to boost science budgets by 15%, ease rules to cope with pandemic

*Update, 20 March, 12:45 p.m.: Last night, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a new directive that gives universities the flexibility they are seeking to deal with disruptions to research caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s almost exactly what we asked for,” says Wendy Streitz of the Council on Governmental Relations, a nonprofit representing hundreds of research institutions.

Now, it’s up to federal agencies to spell out exactly how those changes will affect tens of thousands of grantees. Look for that information on agency FAQs. And keep checking for updates.

The U.S. research community is urgently asking the White House and Congress to take steps aimed at keeping academic research—as well as museums, botanic gardens, and zoos—afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

Four organizations representing the nation’s major research institutions and medical schools today wrote to congressional leaders, urging them to increase research spending at federal science agencies by some 15%, or $13 billion, in order to prevent students and researchers in all scientific disciplines from going broke, to help closed laboratories restart once the pandemic eases, and to cover other unanticipated costs to the academic research enterprise.

“We anticipate significant impacts on research personnel and students and their work but, given the great uncertainties about the duration of the crisis, we cannot comprehensively quantify all the costs at this time,” wrote the leaders of the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the American Council on Education. But they suggest a massive pandemic-related spending bill now making its way through Congress offers an opportunity to “allow our members to continue to lead in the battle against COVID-19 [coronavirus disease 2019] and ensure that our other research on behalf of the American people will not suffer during these unprecedented times.”

They recommend that the additional funds, which would be added to approximately $85 billion the federal government now spends on basic and applied research, “be divided among the major federal agencies based on the size of their extramural research budgets.” In practice, that means the largest funders of academic research, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the departments of energy and defense, would get the largest amounts. Researchers could request the funds to deal with COVID-19 related expenses.

A plea to ease regulatory burden 

The 19 March letter comes 1 day after U.S. university leaders urged the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to alter the rules governing federal oversight of research grants to help university officials cope with the huge disruptions to research on their campuses. On Wednesday, they asked officials to expand a 9 March OMB directive giving agencies greater flexibility in monitoring awards relating to COVID-19 so that it applies to the entire federal research enterprise, not just pandemic-related activities. 

Beyond the delays caused by actual shutdowns of labs and other scientific facilities, universities are beginning to worry that grantees may not be able to carry out the research promised under the terms of their awards. It’s not just because investigators might run out of time—failing to finish specified work before their grant expires—because campuses have been closed. It’s also the extra pressure the pandemic has put on their budgets. By keeping graduate students, postdocs, and technicians on the payroll so they can feed their families and pay rent—even if they can’t do any work—faculty members may not have enough money left on their grants to complete their project even after the crisis eases.

“It’s like a research vessel tied up at the dock,” explains oceanographer David Conover, vice president for research at the University of Oregon. “It costs a lot of money to maintain it, even if it’s not doing any work.”

Institutions also must follow extensive rules that require them to account for how every federal research dollar is spent. But the pandemic has created situations that nobody ever expected to encounter, says Wendy Streitz, president of the Council on Governmental Relations, a nonprofit representing hundreds of research institutions. It helped craft the OMB letter and has posted an FAQ on how the pandemic already has affected federal regulatory policies.

Taken separately, the problems—including issues such as whether canceled travel can be reimbursed by federal agencies—might seem trivial. But institutions take seriously their obligation to inform a funder immediately about anything that affects their ability to carry out the terms of any particular grant. Given the scope of the crisis, universities are asking OMB for a reasonable delay in such notification, along with perhaps some type of blanket exemption or extension for all federally supported projects.

They also want the changes to apply to every federal agency. “We appreciate that some federal agencies have already begun to release guidance,” noted the 18 March letter to OMB. “It is imperative that all agencies release guidance that is as uniform and consistent so as not to add to the already significant administrative and compliance burden institutions and researchers are facing in responding to this crisis.”

Funding needs

Research advocates are also hoping the federal stimulus package now being assembled by Congress will go beyond helping academic researchers fight the pandemic. They envision something like the 2009 package aimed at helping the U.S. economy recover from the global financial crisis, which provides tens of billions for “shovel-ready” research projects across many fields.

“Certainly, we need money for COVID research,” says Toby Smith of AAU, which has been speaking to legislators. “But it needs to be much broader than that.”

In addition to supplementing existing awards for investigators who needed to spend more on salaries and supplies, he points to the cost of restarting labs and facilities that have been shut down and having to repeat research that was interrupted midstream and can’t simply be resumed.

The longer the crisis lasts, Smith notes, the larger the impact on the overall scientific workforce, from doctoral students who can’t finish their dissertations to scientists at core user facilities that no longer have customers to pay the bills. And the ramifications for universities of an extended shutdown may be still broader, Conover adds.

“We’ve been able to maintain research operations” because Oregon is lagging the rest of the country in the number of reported cases of COVID-19, he says. But it will be shifting to online instruction after next week’s spring break, he adds, with the hope that students remain engaged. “As a public institution, we rely on tuition for revenue,” he says. Given a steady decline in state funding, any significant drop in fall enrollment would be another blow to the institution’s already precarious financial situation.

Museums also plead for funds

U.S. museums, botanic gardens, and zoos are also pleading for financial assistance from Congress, estimating the pandemic could force the closure of one-third of such institutions. On 18 March, eight organizations representing museums wrote to congressional leaders urging them to spend “at least $4 billion for nonprofit museums in COVID-19 (coronavirus) economic relief legislation to provide emergency assistance through June.”

Museums “are losing at least $33 million a day due to closures as a result of COVID-19,” they wrote, noting that the institutions help support 726,000 jobs. “[M]useums of all sizes are experiencing closures, attendance free-fall, canceled events, and actual layoffs. This will escalate, day-by-day, as closures and cancellations continue.” Nonprofit museums operate “on thin margins of financial sustainability,” they wrote, and are “often largely dependent on earned revenue from visitors passing through their doors. We estimate as many as 30% of museums, mostly in small and rural communities, will not re-open without significant and immediate emergency financial assistance.”

“Over and above losses in earned revenue and unremitted expenses, museums are expecting lost charitable contributions as donors reassess their capacity to give due to the stock market’s volatility,” the letter continues. “Congress should ensure communities are able to support their local museums and all nonprofits during this crisis by enacting a targeted, temporary giving incentive that enables all Americans, regardless of whether they claim itemize deductions, to receive a tax incentive for giving to the work of charitable nonprofits, including museums, responding to, or suffering from, the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Museums are also the most trusted source of information in America,” the letter notes, “rated higher than local papers, nonprofit researchers, the U.S. government, or academic researchers. Museums can leverage this high level of public trust to provide education on COVID-19 and fight misinformation about its spread.” Many museums are already providing online lesson plans and other materials to help students who have been sent home from closed schools, the letter notes. And they can play an important role in helping “sustain healthy communities, maintain calm, and reduce the chances for an increase in discrimination or xenophobia often created by global diseases.”