Research funding led to COVID breakthroughs — we need more to prevent the next pandemic
As Americans take vaccines and benefit from new therapeutics for COVID-19, they should take stock of the irreplaceable role that decades of research — much of it done at America’s leading research universities — has played during this battle. And, as we recognize the central importance of research, we must also prepare for the next pandemic by renewing America’s commitment to private, state and federal funding for scientific research.
Universities in the United States have suffered historic financial strain due to the pandemic. In addition to the extra costs of safety precautions, universities have lost income from housing, dining and the cancellation of public events and summer programs, among other sources. Universities also lost tuition from students who chose not to attend. Many public universities could see little relief — and possibly will see significant cuts — from financially stretched state governments and major tuition increases to cover these costs are out of the question.
One of the few bright spots? Governments and other sources injected new funds into the university research ecosystem to support the battle against COVID-19. This additional funding leveraged already-existing research assets at universities and other institutions to fight the pandemic. COVID-19 researchers have put existing research facilities, such as university veterinary diagnostic labs and specialized freezers, to new pandemic-related uses. While many researchers and the research infrastructure itself have been harmed by the pandemic in myriad disparate ways, university researchers have been at the forefront of understanding, modeling, and treating the disease. Our leading research universities have long played a vital role in securing the nation’s health and prosperity — and in the current crisis, they rose to the occasion again.
Now the financial crunch on universities is threatening the preeminence of the U.S. university research enterprise. Since the end of World War II, universities and the federal government have been partners in funding research, but universities are shouldering an increasing share of this partnership’s costs. According to data from the National Science Foundation between 2008 and 2018, universities’ institutional contributions to research and development increased from 20 percent to 26 percent of total research expenditures, while federal contributions decreased from 61 percent to 53 percent over the same period. Universities picked up costs formerly borne by federal funds in a variety of areas, including research infrastructure, staffing, graduate student stipends and new research initiatives and faculty start-up packages.
This ever-increasing burden was unsustainable in normal times; the pandemic has simply accelerated a reckoning. With universities under unprecedented financial stress and with numerous unmet research-related needs, simply maintaining federal research investments in line with recent trends will not be sufficient to maintain America’s place as the world’s leader in scientific research and innovation.
Given increasing global competition and security threats facing the United States, disinvesting from the university research enterprise is not a viable option. The foundational research done at academic institutions is an engine that drives not only our national security enterprise, but also the innovations of our private corporations. America’s research enterprise also helps attract the best and brightest young minds from across the United States and abroad to our graduate programs — and the vast majority of this talent ends up staying in the United States to pursue their careers and help build our economy. Letting university research atrophy will reduce our appeal as a destination and will disincentivize domestic talent from entering critical STEM fields.
Even short-term gaps in research investments are harmful because both human knowledge and cutting-edge technology advance steadily and rapidly. Cryogenic electron microscopy is one of the many advances in the past decade that went quickly from being a niche to being an essential aspect of whole fields of cutting-edge research — and it was based on significant previous investments by both the government and the universities.
Who will fill the funding gap? While there are excellent examples of research support from non-profit organizations and while such support has been increasing, the sheer scale of the need will require a renewed federal commitment. This means a rapid and significant increase in federal support for the scientific agencies and programs that fund research on the scale that has been proposed with bipartisan support in the Endless Frontier Act.
Similarly, the boost to research agency funding in President Biden’s new infrastructure proposals and other targeted research infrastructure funding would enable universities to proceed with long-deferred updates of aging research facilities and to acquire cutting-edge instrumentation. Such investments could significantly relieve the burden on university research investments while setting the stage for the nation’s continued scientific preeminence in the decades ahead.
Regardless of the form of future investments, we all should recognize that America’s government-university research partnership has once again demonstrated its value in the current health crisis. We need to make that partnership even stronger to meet future health crises and security challenges as well as to continue driving the innovation engine that is at the core of American economic vitality.
Peter Schiffer is the Frederick W. Beinecke professor of Applied Physics at Yale University and is serving as a senior fellow at the Association of American Universities. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jay Walsh is the interim vice president for economic development and innovation for the University of Illinois System and also serves as a senior fellow at the Association of American Universities. He can be reached at email@example.com.