[OPINION] America’s Scientists and Research Labs Need COVID-19 Recovery Money, Too

Have you noticed how social media has been awash as of late with images of Americans gratefully getting vaccinated against COVID-19 with either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines? There are images of smiling friends holding their vaccination records and stickers or a masked neighbor taking a shot for a trial program. Also popular are images of elderly parents and grandparents waiting in massive vaccination centers for their turn.

(Photo by Sergei Karpukhin via Getty Images)

As a professor and researcher of biological sciences at San José State University, I am proud to point out that these highly sought-out vaccines were developed in record-breaking time thanks to decades of basic and translational research, much of which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation grants. As a nation, we should take pause to acknowledge how taxpayer investment in science is proving its worth during the pandemic. 

But then we have to get right back to work and address a troubling reality that could handicap or destroy such scientific progress: Our nation’s science labs, like so many businesses, have been severely hurt financially by the pandemic. They are literally bleeding cash. 

As the coronavirus spread through the country in March, most research labs shut down quickly to keep people home and try to flatten the curve. These life-saving measures led to unexpected costs as research projects were halted mid-experiment and valuable reagents lost. To ensure that American researchers can help the country respond to current and future public health challenges, Congress should pass the bipartisan Research Investment to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act which would provide $25 billion to help our nation’s research labs recover. 

As one of the more than 300,000 researchers funded by the NIH, I know the value of federal investment in science and the toll the pandemic has taken on our ability to complete the work we are currently funded to do. At San José State University our lab studies a specialized sensory organ in the muscle that helps you know where your limbs are in space, information which is needed to keep your balance and move around the world. While our work will not directly contribute to the COVID-19 relief efforts, what we learn might inform the development of treatments for conditions that impair this sense organ or the creation of better prosthetic limbs.  

Most labs, including my own, have been allowed to open up again, but at a very reduced capacity to maintain social distancing. A large proportion of federal research grants are spent to support the salaries of people conducting the research, including faculty, technicians, postdoctoral fellows, and students. These costs for the most part have not decreased during the pandemic, but the progress made on the research projects has been slowed. NIH Director Francis Collins has estimated this lost productivity has cost the agency at least $10 billion dollars. Recovery funds from Congress could support the completion of already funded projects so that the U.S. doesn’t lose the potential knowledge and scientific breakthroughs they have already supported.  

Recovery funds are also vital to ensure that the U.S. doesn’t lose arguably its most valuable scientific resource—its trained scientific workforce. My story is not atypical in that the federal government spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting my Ph.D. and postdoctoral work through fellowships and research supply funds. Many students, postdoctoral fellows, and new faculty face uncertain transitions thanks to lost productivity and hiring freezes. If these highly trained scientists leave research, we will lose not just our investment in their training, but also their ideas and future breakthroughs. Congress can support these scientists bypassing Reps. Johnson (D-TX) and Lucas’ (R-OK) Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act, which would establish a temporary 2-year fellowship program to retain early-career researchers impacted by COVID-19.   

Given the financial need across the economy, it is tempting to argue that federal science funding should be directed solely to COVID-19 related projects. This would be a huge error, though, as we face many public health challenges from not just the current pandemic but also diabetes, addiction, Alzheimer’s Disease, and the unknown next pandemic to name just a few.  It is impossible to predict which line of research will lead to the knowledge necessary to cure diseases or respond to societal challenges. 

Until this year, coronavirus research was largely underfunded, leaving important gaps in knowledge that scientists are scrambling to fill. In fact, many of the key contributors to the NIH-Moderna vaccine were recently awarded the Golden Goose Award, which celebrates serendipitous scientific research that leads to major breakthroughs and is a counterpoint to the Golden Fleece Awards. Supporting a broad range of scientific research makes it more likely that we will have the tools we need to fight the next pandemic.

Americans should be proud that our scientists and tax-funded research have led to record-breaking vaccination breakthroughs and accomplishments that will surely hasten the end of the pandemic. 

These results will mean that the U.S. economy will reignite sooner because businesses and workers will be able to get back to work. Students will go back to school. And most importantly, more American lives will be saved.

However, to ensure that we can make progress against the wide range of scientific challenges facing our country, Congress needs to continue to invest appropriately in America’s scientific research labs and infrastructure. In addition to the money needed to respond to the many health challenges caused by the pandemic, recovery funds are needed to ensure that already supported research will be completed and to retain the next generation of scientists who will be properly trained and equipped to respond the next time our country is in dire need. 

Katherine A. Wilkinson is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at San José State University and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. Her lab is currently supported by an NIH research grant.

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