Dear Speaker Pelosi, House Minority Leader McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Schumer, and Senate Minority Leader McConnell:
As with many sectors of our society, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the
U.S. biomedical research enterprise, with crucial scientific investigations abruptly terminated and labs closed to heed waves of shelter-in-place, stay-at-home guidelines and orders, alternating with partial lab openings at severely constrained researcher occupancy. Thankfully, some scientists pivoted, launching inspired COVID-related projects that exploited their expertise and technologies to mitigate the crisis. However, this shift massively disrupted research essential for understanding, treating and curing disease.
The Coalition for the Life Sciences (CLS), an alliance of research institutes, academic professional societies, and biotech/pharma, is grateful to Congress for acting swiftly to provide supplementary funding to a subset of institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support new COVID-19 research. It is now essential, even in the midst of this deadly crisis, for additional, robust, supplementary funding that can begin to address the “lost year” of biomedical research and training. The CLS proposes a
$34.5 billion supplemental appropriation to NIH in the next emergency relief bill. As you know, the NIH is the leader and driving force in life science research, and it is critical for our health, well-being and economy, both here in the U.S., and for the rest of the world. Later in this letter, we provide the logic and rationale for this specific figure. Generally, the funds must address the immediate effects of the pandemic on the overall enterprise, while preventing long-term damage.
We are entering the twelfth month of this pandemic, and do not yet know how long restrictions will remain in place, or the manner or rate at which they will be relaxed. What is certain is that the recovery will take place over an extended period; indeed, we may never return fully to “business as usual.” Already, we have seen cancellation of countless scientific meetings that would have brought together hundreds of thousands of researchers to share information. Every institution has cancelled seminar programs and has lost the opportunity for their researchers to learn from outside speakers about their research findings and ideas. How long will it take to reconstruct experimental animal strains in sufficient numbers to begin research anew, or to recruit participants to restart clinical trials or population studies? And with many institutions imposing hiring freezes, how long will it take to fill vacant faculty slots or lab staff positions, or to reconstitute study teams, or administrative staff to manage grant applications, grant funds, compliance and regulatory mandates?
These and other disruptions are perhaps most threatening for our next generation of research leaders—graduate students, those completing postdoctoral training (post-docs), and early-stage independent investigators. For students, completion of laboratory experiments, preparation of research publications and dissertations, and relocation to begin postdoctoral work are indefinitely delayed, and funding to support extended training periods is nonexistent. Visa extensions for noncitizen trainees may be problematic. Postdoctoral scientists generally hold appointments with strict institutional term limits, and in any case, lack sources of extended funding, while their progression to careers as independent investigators will be impeded because searches to fill scientific positions have been suspended across both academia and industry. Early-stage investigators are expending precious startup funds during the shutdown to support staff who are doing scholarly work outside their labs, but who cannot carry out the experiments that would build scientific knowledge and advance their career aspirations. All of this while a Congressional Research Service report projects that “as some agencies and researchers shift their R&D priorities to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, the funding available for R&D on other topics may be reduced.”
What is an appropriate and effective level of support needed to respond to these enterprise-wide challenges in a still uncertain, dynamic environment? CLS proposes an amount sufficient to insert a repeat of the FY2020 budget into every existing extramural research and training funding mechanism,* effectively extending the term and expanding the total award level for each funded grant.**
We note that this strategy embodies particular elements of fairness, priority, excellence and efficiency:
- Funding would be provided to individuals and programs that have already been peer reviewed and deemed meritorious, and that have directly suffered the kinds of disruptions described above;
- Support for existing programs is essential, as they are focused on understanding mechanisms of fundamental biological processes that malfunction in disease, and address the full range of topics and problems crucial to the health and well-being of all;
- Funds would be dispersed rapidly and with little administrative burden for grantees, grantee institutions or NIH;
- The plan does not trigger a “funding cliff”, unlike many other one-time funding measures, such as a new competitive grant mechanism;
- Funds would be widely distributed geographically, benefitting all regions.
Notably, this terrible crisis could well extend longer than a year, necessitating additional supplementary funds. Importantly, the crucial rationale for this relief package is prioritization of funding extensions for existing research and training activities, all of
which have been compromised by COVID-19, including investigations to prevent future public health challenges.
Thank you for considering this recommendation and for all that you are doing to address the pandemic and its economic consequences.
Keith R. Yamamoto
Chair, Coalition for the Life Sciences
Vice Chancellor for Science Policy and Strategy, UCSF Director, UCSF Precision Medicine
Vice Dean for Research, School of Medicine Professor, Cellular & Molecular Pharmacology