University research is key to COVID-19 breakthroughs, serving the public good

a woman and man in a research lab

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers are in high gear working on a promising antiviral treatment for COVID-19, an immediate need to treat potentially millions of people around the world until a vaccine is developed. 

At Johns Hopkins University, researchers have developed an in-house coronavirus screening test aimed at allowing the health system to test as many as 1,000 people per day. 

At the Harvard University Medical School, researchers in the Precision Vaccines Program at Boston Children’s Hospital are on the frontlines of developing a vaccine specially targeted toward older populations at the highest risk of developing the acute respiratory symptoms potentially caused by COVID-19. 

A researcher at the University of Texas at Austin has worked to develop the first 3D atomic scale of the part of the virus, known as the spike protein, that attaches to and infects human cells, an essential step for researchers around the world to develop vaccines and antiviral drugs to combat the virus.

This is a list that could go on and on.

Dozens of university laboratories and hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers, are immersed in finding treatments, tests and vaccines for COVID-19. They are working in collaboration with the federal government and the private sector, as well as institutions and labs worldwide, and they are doing this even as university labs confront issues, like the rest of us, about social distancing and grapple with what happens to federal grants and other funding for all of the other important, often life-saving, scientific and medical research that goes on every day at universities.

When antiviral medications and vaccines are available, almost certainly, university research will play a key role in many of the most important developments.

And right now, physicians and other health care workers at dozens of university hospitals nationwide, along with millions of health care practitioners trained by colleges and universities, are on the front lines testing potential coronavirus patients and treating people sickened by COVID-19. 

And several colleges and universities, such as New York University, Tufts University, and Middlebury College, are looking at contributing buildings and dorm beds for use as temporary facilities to care for the ill if regular hospitals are overwhelmed.

Higher education leaders often tout the evidence showing that people with a college degree are better off than those without one by virtually every measure that demographers can devise, from lifetime earnings to health to civic engagement. 

And that’s all true — American higher education is most certainly an enormous private good. Completing a post-secondary education is the single best engine of economic and social mobility for an individual.

But what this time of crisis should remind us all is that, even more importantly, U.S. higher education is a public good. Our collective societal investment in institutions of higher learning pays huge dividends in scientific and medical advances, our country’s overall economic prosperity and social well-being, and ensures a diverse and flourishing democracy. 

It’s the investment in research, this far-reaching university infrastructure, that is paying off right now, of course, in the immediate need to develop treatments, tests and vaccines. But it is also higher education’s embrace of the concept of the public good that is helping spur on innovation and breakthroughs even as researchers and their families face all of the personal toll of this immense public health crisis as everyone else.

Holden Thorpe, editor-in-chief of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote this week in an editorial that it is a “Time to Pull Together.”

As for the scientific community who are not working on the virus—we know well that other major problems still exist, such as climate change, inequality, and other diseases,” he said. “It is understandably challenging to pause research in other areas for an indefinite amount of time. This crisis is calling for extraordinary measures, and your supportive responses deserve recognition. Working from home will make it safer for those who must be in buildings and laboratories to do work related to the virus. In essence, fewer people in the hallways, lunchrooms, and other public areas will slow the spread of the virus so that work on COVID-19 can continue.

He concluded by saying that, “this is a battle of a lifetime and a test of our responsibilities for each other and the strength of our compassion.” 

I wholeheartedly agree. American higher education and our research universities are up to the test. We have been and will continue to work for the public good through this and other crises to come.

Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education (ACE). The American Council on Education (ACE) is the major coordinating body for the nation’s colleges and universities, representing more than 1,700 colleges and universities, related associations, and other organizations in America and abroad. ACE is the only major higher education association to represent all types of U.S. accredited, degree-granting institutions: two-year and four-year, public and private. 

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