A New Frontier: Scientific Funding Policies after COVID-19

Federal research and development funding has become a hot-button issue after the Trump administration defunded Predict, a pandemic early warning project that had already identified and flagged 190 dangerous coronaviruses, just months before the global outbreak of COVID-19. In the 2019 fiscal year, federal research and development (R&D) funding was sitting at less than 1% of the US national gross domestic product, the lowest in over 60 years.

Because of this decreased funding specific to health and viral research, it was no surprise that the US was unprepared to face the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest health crises of the 21st century. The infrastructure necessary to support the increased need for research on this new virus, public health policy development, and expedited vaccine development did not exist.

“[T]he present pandemic has also revealed that science underpins a country’s national security in ways never appreciated before,” says Dr. Geoffrey Dobson, former NIH cardiovascular researcher. “The resultant economic upheaval has thrown global supply chains, stock markets, the airline industry, oil markets, and the central bank into frenzied disarray.” More than ever, the world has seen the importance of science in our society, thereby increasing public attention to exactly how scientific programs are funded at the federal level.

Federal R&D funding was a major component of the Obama administration, and its primary goal was to improve sustainability and renewable energy prospects. In his inaugural speech, former President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place” in America by returning to the basics of scientific funding and promoting scientific education in schools. The Obama administration subsequently pushed to double federal scientific funding, specifically in the areas of cancer research and basic research, setting a high bar for his later years that would not be reached again.

American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2017. Matt Hourihan.

While the Obama administration created a net increase in funding for basic Department of Energy science programs and the National Science Foundation, most other major government-funded scientific programs saw only a brief increase during his early years in office, later dropping to the same level of funding before the Obama administration. 

In the Trump administration, scientific institutes were targeted for significant decreases in funding, with the Department of Defense technology R&D favored at the expense of basic and applied research. However, despite the best efforts of the Trump administration, the sitting Congress continued to push forward a mixed batch of budget increases, including significant increases for the National Institutes of Health and that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

These increases prioritized funding for research on neurodegenerative disease and climate science, considered pressing issues for the American public. However, the inclination to allocate funds based on current problems significantly decreases the resources available for unforeseeable situations, such as a global pandemic. Without this funding for basic and applied scientific research, which often don’t have a specific problem-resolution end goal, we inadvertently narrow the scope of preparedness for the unforeseen. 

Much of basic research does not have an immediate practical application. As a result, funding for this kind of research, co-founder of Microsoft Research Nathan Myhrvolt says, is viewed as a form of charity by many corporations and governmental organizations, as it does not directly enhance a product or pressing issue.

Myhrvolt asserts that “[without] government support, most basic scientific research will never happen,” as corporations aren’t known for their generosity, especially when it will not benefit them or their products. This is perhaps most true for the huge scientific developments that bring prestige and advancement without profit, such as mapping the human genome. These advancements are still enormously valuable, but are often unlikely to receive funding under the categorization used by many government committees, including the Trump administration’s budget plan.

Myhrvolt’s line of reasoning is the same one which led to the cutting of the Predict early pandemic warning project just before COVID-19 hit: though the project had identified potentially dangerous viruses, there seemed to be no reason to continue an expensive project with such small prospects of actually predicting and preventing a global pandemic. 

While the outlooks of such lines of reasoning and patterns of funding seem grim, the post-COVID-19 funding policies appear to be taking a different approach. Under the Biden administration, there have already been aggressive strategies adopted to both destigmatize science education and invest in the nation’s future through R&D funding. In the proposal for the 2022 fiscal year, the Biden administration outlines significant increases to the Department of Energy and the Department of Education, specifically increasing the Department of Energy R&D budget by 10.2%, allocating funds for physics research, running supercomputers, and national laboratory funding. 

Budget of the U.S. Government. Via the Washington Post, 2021.

Within these increases, there is also a $250 billion proposal specifically for scientific research, including $40 billion directly for upgrading research facilities across the country, in both universities and national laboratories. These funds are allocated for more general basic and applied scientific research, a departure from the previous administration and an encouraging sign of investment in the advancement of science for knowledge, not just for monetary gains. 

While there have been attempts to cut important scientific programs and broader funding of basic scientific research in the past three administrations, there are now hopeful outlooks for the future of federal research and development funding. The COVID-19 pandemic has pointed out glaring failures in past administrations’ funding policies, especially for programs not directly linked to solving current problems, and it appears the new Biden administration has begun taking steps to address this gap.

This article was edited by Lucy Zhao and Anagha Aneesh.