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House Science Committee Hears Testimony on COVID-19 Impacts to Research Enterprise

February 26, 2021

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Christa Wagner, Senior Legislative Analyst

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the research enterprise on Feb. 25. The hearing, Building Back the U.S. Research Enterprise: COVID Impacts and Recovery, included testimony from organizations representing researchers, students, academia, and the business sector.

Throughout the hearing, committee members from both sides of the aisle and witnesses shared their support for the Research Investment to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act (H.R. 869), which would authorize $25 billion in supplemental funding for federal research agencies, including $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 disruptions [see Washington Highlights, Feb. 5]. The AAMC and other higher education associations have previously shared support for the RISE Act and supplemental relief funds for federal research agencies [see Washington Highlights, Jan. 29].

“I am deeply concerned about the long-term consequences for the American people if we don’t make the investments necessary to address the needs of our science agencies, universities, researchers, and students,” stated Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) in her opening statement. “Even before the pandemic, years of stagnant funding dramatically eroded our standing as the leader in science and innovation, with countries like China nipping at our heels. It is not enough to recover simply to maintain the status quo—we must grow the research enterprise so we can boldly tackle the urgent challenges ahead of us.”

In his opening statement, Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) noted concern about the loss of research, researchers, and staff whose jobs are directly supported by federal funding at research universities. “Graduate students and post-docs are particularly vulnerable to lab closures right now … Our STEM pipeline and future competitiveness could be irreparably damaged if we don’t act quickly,” he added.

Rep. Lucas also addressed the costly nature of disruptions to research programs. “Unfortunately, we can’t just flip a switch and restart the research work that’s been halted by the pandemic. There’s a cost involved in getting back up and running. …But our scientific progress is worth that investment.”

“The virus has lowered our research output, caused hundreds of millions of dollars in divestment, and nearly halted the academic research and STEM workforce pipeline,” stated Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kan.). He asked witnesses how the RISE Act would impact the university research community and local economy, citing that the University of Kansas is the largest employer in his district.

Washington State University Vice President for Research Christopher Keane, PhD, cited a 20-40% loss in research output due to COVID-19 in his opening statement, and added that the RISE Act would support a full return to research and support local economic development, especially in rural communities like eastern Washington. Keane strongly urged the committee to pass the RISE Act to “provide resources to enable research to finish that was interrupted,” and also raised the need to support those with less “fall back,” including Historically Black Colleges and Universities and female faculty.

Reps. Young Kim (R-Calif.) and Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) asked witnesses about the importance of maintaining and growing the proportion of women in the research workforce. Rep. Moore noted that international competitors have higher participation rates of women in research. American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Sudip Parikh, PhD, responded that it is not only a moral imperative to include diverse voices, especially women and underrepresented minorities in the research workforce, but such diversity also increases economic competitiveness. Keane described decreased lab productivity and publication rates for women researchers during the pandemic and cited ongoing efforts to identify opportunities to better support women in academic research career paths.

Several committee members addressed declining international competitiveness, especially with China, if additional investments are not made in the research and development enterprise. Parikh noted that “the U.S.’s global share of science and engineering publications has always been ahead of everybody else … [but] China has overtaken us.” He stated that China has a plan to attract and retain international talent in China, and that the U.S. needs to make sure “that we are doing our absolute best to recruit the best talent from the United States … and also the best talent from around the world.” Felice Levine, PhD, executive director of the American Educational Research Association added that the United States is in danger of losing its position as the world leader in scientific research if it does not remain a primary environment for the education of scientists.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) asked witnesses about academia’s efforts to protect research from foreign government influence. Parikh commented that, from his perspective, universities have “been very responsive to these attacks.” Keane provided specific examples from his institution’s efforts, including systems improvements for disclosures of conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment. Keane also added his support for ongoing efforts to harmonize research security-related reporting across agencies.

Chairwoman Johnson concluded the hearing by indicating the committee may schedule a follow-up discussion in the near future.

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