Science is rescuing us from COVID—it’s time for the US to return the favor

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President Biden has set a goal for Americans to be able to celebrate the Fourth of July with friends and family, giving hope that the end of the pandemic may be drawing near. This long-awaited development would not be possible if not for the years of research that laid the groundwork for companies to  develop vaccines in record time. 

Yet many researchers who are helping us cope with and fend off COVID-19 have seen their work upended. Some of the research that has been stalled could help address a range of public health issues that have gotten worse because of the pandemic. For example, research examining the causes of suicide is more pressing than ever, but as a researcher in the field, I have seen how the research in the area has suffered significant delays. I have also seen how studies looking at the efficacy of substance use treatment are potentially compromised because of the obstacles involved in tracking the progress of study participants.  Research helping us to understand the most effective strategies to enhance children’s learning is particularly relevant today, but studies in school environments have almost completely halted, and research examining the effects of stress on the brain has been hindered because scientists have not been able to regularly access lab animals. The consequences of these delays and interruptions could be felt for years.

No one understands these challenges better than the psychological scientists at Pennsylvania State University who are in the third year of a longitudinal study on teen anxiety. Because they have not been able to recruit new participants since March 2020, the researchers have fallen behind and they say a five-year grant will now need seven to eight years of funding to complete. 

In another example, a study on aging and memory at Kansas State University was paused at the beginning of the epidemic. Thankfully, the lab recently reopened using technology that allows for remote access. But that comes with its own issues, including finding and purchasing remote data collection technology and teaching participants how to use it. 

These interruptions, which are affecting scientists across disciplines, threaten the careers of the estimated 668,000 graduate students and 64,000 post-doctoral fellows in the U.S., according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. These young scientists need to be able to complete research to ensure their professional futures and America’s continued reputation as a leader in scientific innovation depends on these young professionals. That’s why we must make sure that the research community has the funding necessary to help these students and post-doctoral fellows get back to work.

In addition, many scientists are struggling to juggle their research duties from home while caring for children and sick and elderly family members, according to a report by the American Education Research Association. These factors are disproportionately affecting female researchers, data suggest. AERA encouraged universities to support researchers by evaluating faculty salaries, providing technology to conduct research and giving stipends to support child care — but this comes at a cost that many schools cannot afford.

There is a bill before Congress that could help solve some of these problems. The Research Investment to Spark the Economy Act, which has been introduced in the House and Senate, would give $25 billion to several government agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to distribute to independent research institutions and universities across the country.

While the bill enjoys bipartisan support, it easily could be overlooked by members of Congress focused on competing priorities, such as infrastructure funding and taxes. This would have dire consequences for our nation’s standing as a leader in scientific research and the ability of science to address pressing public health crises because the research community needs immediate financial help. That’s why the House and Senate must act quickly to pass this legislation and NSF and HHS must distribute the funding immediately thereafter. 

Science is leading us out of this pandemic and offering hope and optimism for the first time in a year. By passing this bill, Congress will be investing in science that may help Americans and the world for generations to come. 

Prinstein is the chief science officer of the American Psychological Association 

Tags COVID-19 research Joe Biden National Science Foundation Research Science

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