Covid’s drain on US academic science starts raising alarm

Toll on younger scientists highlights lack of research-specific pandemic aid

February 26, 2021
scientist lab
Source: iStock

Leading lawmakers from both major US political parties are growing worried by the failure of Congress to protect academic research during the pandemic, calling it a dangerous omission from emergency aid bills.

US universities have largely restarted their research operations after widespread laboratory shutdowns in the early months of the coronavirus outbreak, making science one of the more resilient parts of academia.

But the accumulated losses in the research enterprise are estimated in the tens of billions of dollars, with especially pronounced effects on early career scientists considered critical to long-term US competitiveness.

One survey reaching completion, and outlined to the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives, questioned 6,000 doctoral programme students and graduates, and found large portions of them falling behind in their career progression.

Commissioned by the American Education Research Association and the Spencer Foundation, it showed that 45 per cent of the doctoral students were taking longer than planned, and 24 per cent of the recent graduates had suffered Covid-related income losses.

The work was carried out by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which earlier produced a 200-institution survey that found two-thirds of them expecting pandemic-related cuts to their postgraduate programmes.

The risk is “one of the most important issues we face at this moment”, Frank Lucas, the top-ranking Republican on the Science Committee, told his colleagues.

The committee gathered as Congress remains stuck on details of a $1.9 trillion (£1.4 trillion) nationwide economic stimulus plan favoured by Democrats. The plan includes nearly $40 billion for colleges, roughly doubling the aid that higher education received from the $4 trillion in previous rescue packages.

But none of the earlier aid money was directly aimed at boosting scientific research, and only about $600 million from the new bill is dedicated in that direction, Mr Lucas said.

That’s unacceptable, he said, given that US university labs already were estimated to be running about 20 per cent to 40 per cent behind their regular research output.

“We can’t just flip a switch and restart the research work that’s been halted by the pandemic,” he said.

The problems facing academic research during Covid – and the challenges of understanding them – are exacerbated by the government’s complicated funding systems, according to a new report from Ithaka S+R, a non-profit higher education services company.

Individual scientists compete for research grant money from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Their universities then receive about 50 per cent above any grant award to cover their operational and facilities costs.

Universities contend the amount does not truly cover their costs in such areas as maintaining buildings and equipment, running academic libraries and providing computing and other data services.

That discrepancy is growing more problematic during the pandemic, Ithaka said, as universities hit by sharp declines in enrolments and the costs of Covid prevention measures have less ability to keep subsidising their science.

“The pandemic is pointing to some risks that that model may have to it,” Roger Schonfeld, Ithaka’s director of scholarly communication, said of the federal research reimbursement system.

So far, the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill has been stymied for weeks by Republican concerns over its overall size and some of its provisions. Two Covid relief measures specific to university research do, however, enjoy support from leaders in both parties.

One, known as the RISE Act, would add $25 billion to federal research expenditures. The other, the Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act, would create a two-year fellowship programme to help affected scientists.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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