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Covid-19 costing US research billions of dollars, study estimates

The cost of the Covid-19 pandemic to US research is reaching tens of billions of dollars, an association of research institutions has estimated.

In a report published on 12 January, the Council on Governmental Relations, representing almost 200 universities and independent research institutes, put the crisis facing US research in stark terms.

“Without a federal response, the losses to research output and US competitiveness may be irreparable,” the COGR warned.

Using case studies, the COGR modelled the impact of measures such as shutting down facilities, cancelling experiments and losing researchers to other countries. Building on a previous report that estimated research output losses between 20 and 40 per cent, COGR’s modelling suggested that the recent surge of Covid-19 could reduce research output by a further 10 per cent at individual institutions up to February 2021, adding to existing financial losses of hundreds of millions of dollars.

“A reasonable extrapolation of the case studies to the entire United States research enterprise demonstrates a financial impact approaching tens of billions of dollars,” COGR concluded.

The report, shared with federal leaders in Washington, makes the case that the crisis threatens US leadership in research and calls for an “unprecedented response” at the federal level. COGR said the loss of early career researcher due to the pandemic “is an irreversible loss and one that the nation cannot tolerate”.

Research support package

Legislation that would provide $26 billion to support research projects interrupted by the pandemic has been introduced in both chambers of Congress, and received bipartisan support, but was not included in the $900bn coronavirus relief package signed into law over Christmas.

Senior leaders at the National Institutes of Health have said they are prioritising support for early career researchers affected by the pandemic, as well as researchers at risk of losing funding, but are constrained by the financial resources they are granted by Congress.

Speaking at a webinar held by the advocacy group Research!America on 11 January, NIH deputy director Larry Tabak said that “regardless of what resource set we have, it will never be enough, let’s be candid about this”.

“So it becomes a balance between trying to redress those who are most vulnerable, and who are at the most vulnerable point in their career, versus trying to do something across the board, and I don’t think that latter approach is going to be feasible,” Tabak added.

Politicians on Capitol Hill are responding to concerns about the impact the pandemic is having on the research workforce. On 5 January, a cross-party bill was reintroduced that would offer a lifeline to early-career researchers if passed. The legislation would create a postdoctoral fellowship programme at the National Science Foundation specifically aimed at preventing loss of researchers due to Covid-19.

“We must act now to avoid losing an entire generation of talented scientists and engineers from our research pipeline,” said Eddie Bernice Johnson, chair of the House science committee.