How will science reopen? The cost of uncertainty

In the first few days of the COVID-19 quarantine, as many of us were figuring out where we would set up our “work from home” desk, it was unclear how long we would be home and what role public policy would play as our isolation came to an end. Would this be a two-week, unscheduled “vacation” before everyone went back to business as normal? As time went on, three things became clear: everyone was going to be at home longer than just two weeks, it’s going to be a long time before we return to “normal,” and the costs of closing and reopening science will be high.

In the middle of March, as the lab and office doors were banging shut, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health & Human Services, and Education had just completed its run-of-the-mill hearings on the FY21 budget requests for the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Labor Relations Board. After an almost two-month hiatus, the next hearing the subcommittee held was on the federal government’s response to COVID-19.

In that two-month period, much had changed in the world, including the discussion about federal funding. No longer was the discussion about how much more the NIH would receive this year than last year. Instead, the discussion is now about how much money the NIH will need right now to restart NIH-funded labs after they have been closed for an undetermined amount of time.

As a momentarily bipartisan Congress passed economic stimulus bills with price tags of trillions of dollars, it became clear that the cost of pushing the ON button to start America’s biomedical research labs will be substantial. A joint proposal by the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public & Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the American Council on Education produced a proposal that included a request for $26 billion for all major federal research agencies. This would have meant $8.7 billion for the NIH. NIH Director Francis Collins, when asked at a Senate hearing, said the NIH would need $10 billion. And the Coalition for the Life Sciences, a coalition cofounded by the ASCB, sent a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi proposing $34.5 billion in supplemental funding for NIH.

About the Author:

Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: