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COVID-19 is threat to our biomedical research enterprise

COVID-19 is threat to our biomedical research enterprise
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As part of the 21st Century Cures Act, Congress mandated a study through the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to determine how the U.S. could best ensure the stability and global competitiveness of our biomedical research enterprise. I was one of the three young scientists that served on the 17-member study panel composed of university, medical school and industry leaders. 

After a year and a half of critically evaluating research investigator productivity, federal appropriations and labor statistics, one thing was clear: Our nation’s biomedical workforce was aging. This put our entire enterprise at risk.

Four years later, a global pandemic has universally heralded the importance of biomedical research. Humankind now rests its hopes of the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. Nation-states rapidly advance towards this research objective with the full awareness that the victor will reap profound economic and security benefits in the geopolitical arena.  

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Nevertheless, COVID-19 has placed a unique strain on the U.S. biomedical research enterprise. Yes, research laboratories across the world have closed and critical research programs that advance human health have been brought to a screeching halt, but I believe that the real strain that COVID-19 will uniquely place on the U.S. biomedical research enterprise has yet to be fully revealed.

The U.S. biomedical workforce has been aging for decades. COVID-19 has rendered individuals over 65 an at-risk: a population that is overrepresented in our nation’s pool of scientific investigators. As states across our nation advance their reopening strategies, this demographic of citizens continues to be encouraged to stay home. Simultaneously, behavioral studies over the last three years have also revealed that our nation’s young scientists are a high-risk group for mental health challenges 

As a psychiatrist and National Institutes of Health funded brain scientist, my fear is that whether it’s through the disruption of their research endeavors, the social isolation stemming from the stay-at-home orders issued across the country, or the fragmenting of the apprenticeship compact between senior scientists and junior scientists that has served as the foundation of our training model for decades, COVID-19 will likely exacerbate mental health challenges in this high-risk group. I am unclear whether the U.S. biomedical research enterprise can sustain this dual blow to both young and older scientists. 

New treatments for COVID-19, and ultimately a vaccine, may be required to protect our nation’s senior scientists, but the federal government must act immediately to protect our younger scientists from the psychological impact of COVID-19. Critical steps that can be taken include extending funding for research training grants and research project grants for early career investigators for one year, expanding behavioral and mental health resources for young scientists, funding for new programs to quantify the mental health impact of COVID-19 on researchers and funding research studies to evaluate an expanded pool of mental health interventions for our nation’s young scientists.   

The future of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise stands in the balance.

Kafui Dzirasa, M.D., Ph.D is a psychiatrist and National Institutes of Health funded brain researcher at Duke University. He is also a public engagement fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.