COVID-19 cannot be the grand finale for American research
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In many respects, the COVID-19 pandemic has felt never-ending. But thanks to the dedicated work of scientists and researchers across the country, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccine development is the crowning achievement of scientific advancements made over the last year and speaks to the endurance of America’s research institutions when backed by federal funding. Undoubtedly, we would not have gotten to this place so quickly without the strong partnership between the federal government and research colleges and universities. Their efforts serve as a stark reminder of why Congress should invest in fundamental research and the STEM workforce that serves as the backbone of the American scientific enterprise.

Vaccines are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways America’s research institutions, including members of The Science Coalition, and federal research agencies have contributed to the national pandemic response. We have successfully leveraged technology that may have existed prior to the pandemic, but its rapid mobilization and uptake characterizes a research enterprise uniquely suited for the 21st century.

Contact tracing is a huge part of states’ mitigation efforts, and many have launched mobile apps to make that process as efficient as possible. However, there’s an inherent security risk that comes with sharing sensitive health data via a new platform, so researchers at the University of Notre Dame, with support from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, are designing an encrypted framework for mobile contact tracing. It limits malicious tracking while still providing relevant information to public health officials, which could help curb COVID-19 cases while laying the groundwork to more effectively reach users in future public health crises.

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At the University of Rochester, researchers developed a sensor that can detect a patient’s exposure to multiple viruses, including COVID-19, from a single drop of blood in under a minute. It’s the latest step in a project funded by the Department of Defense to create diagnostic technology that would equip clinicians with data on previous infections and potential immunities. If the sensors are approved for production, it could lead to the availability of diagnostic technology en masse, particularly in doctor’s offices and pharmacies, even after the pandemic is over.

Thanks to the strong partnerships between research institutions and the federal government, we also have a better understanding of COVID-19 risk factors. This information is even more consequential for SARS-CoV-2 because it is one of many coronaviruses that threaten vulnerable populations. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, a team at the University of Oregon is working to understand how proteins, which act as receptors to coronaviruses, might be impaired in people with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. The study could lead to the development of therapies targeted at reducing comorbidities.

These achievements are worth celebrating, but like many other industries, the research enterprise has faced significant damage due to COVID-19. Shutdowns, restrictions, and uncertain funding streams have caused countless delays and disruptions to the 560,000-strong research workforce. Ironically, a once-in-a-century crisis, which could only be solved by scientific research, just might derail the next generation of innovation. Without that, our chances of overcoming the next pandemic are dangerously slim.

Fundamental research, harnessed over the course of decades through robust, consistent, and predictable federal funding, is the foundation of all future discoveries. Over the last two decades, the U.S. has fallen into an alarming pattern — allocating less and less of the federal budget toward research. When we consider all the ways fundamental research has supported the work to combat COVID-19, declining federal investment essentially means we are underinvesting in areas we can’t afford.

The COVID-19 pandemic will not be the grand finale for American science. However, a course correction is needed to get researchers back on track and secure the STEM talent pipeline. Congress needs to fully fund robust, predictable increases in federal research funding year over year. A year of COVID-19 has demonstrated the immense value of a strong research enterprise; now is the time to commit to sustaining it for the next century.

John Latini is director of government relations at Penn State University and president of The Science Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization comprised of the nation’s leading public and private research universities.