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What’s in the huge pandemic relief bill for science?

Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

A massive $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill now on its way to President Joe Biden’s desk will deliver cash to a wide array of groups—including the scientific community.

The U.S. House of Representatives today approved final passage of the bill, which Biden is expected to sign on Friday, on a 220211 party-line vote.

The bill is designed primarily to address the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and accelerate the distribution of vaccines and treatments that have proved effective against the pandemic coronavirus. In addition to direct cash payments to millions of U.S. residents, the bill includes nearly $60 billion for vaccine and treatment development, manufacturing, distribution, and tracking, as well as COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. It also includes $11 billion that will go to international groups and foreign governments addressing the pandemic and other public health threats, including $3.5 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and $250 million to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the primary U.S. aid program to address HIV/AIDS.

The Democratic-controlled Congress rejected pleas by higher education lobbyists for tens of billions of dollars for federal research agencies to help universities recoup the losses to their research programs. But legislators did include some provisions to bolster pandemic-related research activities, including:

  • $1.75 billion for efforts to sequence and track variants of the pandemic coronavirus. Researchers fear some of these variants could make some vaccines and treatments less effective. The funding comes on top of $200 million that Congress approved in late 2020 for variant sequencing.
  • $600 million for the National Science Foundation. The agency, which has a current budget of $8.5 billion, was given a relatively free hand in choosing how to allocate the additional research funds, including providing greater support for training the next generation of scientists and engineers.
  • $150 million for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The $1 billion agency was told to use the funding to bolster its network of manufacturing research institutes.
  • $100 million for the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The money is earmarked for research on how the pandemic has impacted student learning, including comparisons of remote, in-class, and hybrid approaches.
  • $95 million for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help prevent the introduction and spread of zoonotic diseases through inspections of imported animals and research on ways to stop outbreaks. Compared with the potential for zoonotic spillover from around the world, “it’s a pretty small investment,” says Kate Wall, senior legislative manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The bill also funds development of the first national database of wildlife diseases. That’s important, says William Karesh, executive vice president for health and policy at the EcoHealth Alliance. “We have no sense about the movement of these diseases to get into wildlife, we don’t know that about the spread of a problem. We don’t know if the problem is growing or going away.”

With reporting by Jon Cohen, Jeffrey Mervis, Erik Stokstad, and Meredith Wadman.

*Correction, 11 March, 10:55 a.m.: This story misstated the current size of NSF’s budget. It is $8.5 billion.