The Honorable Eddie Bernice Johnson
Chairwoman, House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology
2321 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
The Honorable Frank Lucas
Ranking Member, House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology
2321 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
RE: Science and Research Related Input for Future Stimulus Package
Dear Chairwoman Johnson and Ranking Member Lucas:
Thank you for the opportunity to share ideas and recommendations for supplemental appropriations and stimulus ideas related to scientific research and education.
In this letter, I first share concerns that the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) has been hearing from our members and the community more broadly. I then offer suggestions about where we believe targeted investments and congressional guidance or support to agencies will help the scientific community weather the current crises while mobilizing new research and education initiatives that will increase our capacity to identify, monitor, forecast, and respond to future regional and global problems that can negatively impact public health and well-being, economic and national security, and environmental sustainability.
The American Institute of Biological Sciences is a non-profit, member-governed scientific organization with more than 100 institutional members, including more than 40 natural history museums. Collectively our membership represents about 100,000 scientists, science educators, and students.
a. Scientific societies Most scientific societies convene annual scientific meetings, conferences, and expert workshops. These programs are centrally important to the communication of science and the free exchange of cutting-edge research findings. These conferences are a location for students to meet future graduate school advisors and mentors, a place where employers recruit future employees, and are a venue for researchers to identify new collaborators and discuss strengths and weaknesses of their on-going work. Most scientific meetings attract researchers from around the world, which offers a unique opportunity to build international collaborations that might not otherwise form. For many scientific societies and associations, these conferences are a critical source of revenue. Income derived from these meetings is used to provide scholarships, support society administrative operations and governance, and underwrite the delivery of scientific publications, education and workforce development programs, public engagement and public policy programs that serve their members, public and private sector organizations, and the public at large.
Scientific societies rapidly responded to the growing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic by cancelling scientific meetings and conferences, often prior to government guidance. Many societies have thus suffered significant financial losses that threaten their organizational sustainability.
Although some scientific societies may be able to gain relief from the loan forgiveness program in the CARES Act, many others are not likely to qualify for this program.
b. Scientific collections
Scientific collections include the organizations that collect and curate living and non-living biological specimens and their associated data for use in research and education. These collections are found at natural history museums, botanic gardens, arboreta, herbaria, field stations, and in academic research centers (e.g. university science departments and research centers).
The scientific and educational capacity of scientific collections is in jeopardy. Many of these institutions rely upon revenue generated from public admission, donations, and educational programming to provide for the infrastructure and support of scientific staff. The longer these organizations are closed, the greater their financial losses are and the less able they become to sustain their research and educational missions. Grant supported research and specimen care at these organizations has been impacted. Resources that would have been used to support staff digitizing specimens, maintaining databases, facilitating specimen loans to other research institutions, and caring for and maintaining specimens have been allocated to closing institutions.
We are already hearing from institutions across the country, including public and private natural history museums and university-based collections, who are reducing hours, furloughing, or dismissing scientific staff, including researchers, curators, and collection managers. Other institutions have announced hiring freezes.
It is unclear at this time how significant the impact of closures will be on living collections. Most institutions have endeavored to provide critical care for these resources during the crises, but it is possible that these research organizations will have significant costs associated with ensuring that these resources are again usable in research and education. Serious damage may have been done to some of these collections.
c. Field stations
Field stations support environmental research and education. These institutions are experiencing significant disruptions to scientific programs and revenue loss from being closed to educational programs and the teams of researchers who visit these place-based research centers. In some cases, the need to cancel programs may have a significant negative impact on an organization’s operating budget, resulting in the organization having to reduce its support for research and education work, deferring needed maintenance on research facilities, or eliminating important research and education staff positions. It is possible that as a result of prolonged closures, research stations may experience damage to facilities and research equipment.
There is significant concern within the biological sciences community about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on researchers who are dependent upon grant funding for their salary. This is particularly true for many graduate students, most post-doctoral fellows, and many researchers affiliated with private, non-profit research organizations. There is a concern that resources and time lost to closures associated with the COVID-19 program will not be recoverable, negatively impacting research critical to meeting graduation requirements, securing a post-doc or full-time position, or maintaining a research project that is central to a research center’s mission.
Scientists affiliated with public and private organizations, including universities, are reporting that scientific staff are being furloughed and that hiring freezes have been announced, or are anticipated in the next few weeks. There is grave concern about the long-term effects of these actions on the biological sciences.
AIBS in partnership with the Natural Science Collections Alliance, Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, and Biodiversity Collections Network is currently surveying the natural history community to gain additional data about the effects of COVID-19 on staffing and scientific resources at natural science collections institutions.
2) Students (Graduate and Post-Doc)
There is great concern for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. Within the biological sciences, research often involves travel (foreign and domestic) and collaborations (foreign and domestic). Travel restrictions mean that many students have experienced career delaying or altering disruptions to their research. Some individuals may be able to refocus their research such that travel is not required, but this will not be an option for all. Even for those who can alter their research design, they will lose valuable time - the COVID-19 crises can easily add two years to a field-based research project. There is a need to provide extended support for those who would otherwise run out of grant support prior to completing their research.
3) Research productivity
Members of the research community have expressed a hope that funding agencies will be flexible and accommodating of delays and disruptions to grant filing deadlines (e.g. final reports), and of requests to modify existing grants to refocus research projects as needed to sustain progress during this chaotic period. We have also heard from university-based scientists who are working aggressively to design and deliver online courses and laboratories. This has required significant time and has limited the ability of researchers to sustain progress on research they otherwise would have been able to do remotely, such as data analysis and manuscript preparation. These and other factors are reducing research productivity.
4) Online education
As scientists have rapidly endeavored to redesign courses to be offered online, faculty have sought to find resources about how to effectively deliver science instruction in an online format. There has been no central repository of resources or guidance that individuals can access to develop high quality online educational resources. There is also a concern about whether we will know how well students have learned during this chaotic period.
Future Actions and Needs:
1) Opportunities for Additional R&D and Related Activities Specific to COVID-19
a. There is great need for a large-scale and coordinated effort to conduct a global biodiversity survey to collect specimens and associated data from around the world to identify which species serve as reservoirs for SARS-CoV-2 and closely related viruses, as well as other pathogens that pose a risk to humans, pets, and livestock. This effort would provide data to help identify potentially dangerous pathogens, understand the populations and locations where they exist, and to understand the immune responses of other organisms. This information can inform response to SARS-CoV-2, as well as reduce our risks from future zoonotic diseases. This effort could be coordinated in the United States by the National Science Foundation or potentially a singularly-focused National Science and Technology Council committee.
2) Near-Term Response to COVID-19 Impacts on the Research Enterprise
a. We encourage Congress to provide resources to federal scientific agencies to provide emergency relief grants to non-profit scientific societies that have suffered economic loss from the cancellation of scientific conferences that threatens the continued viability of the society.
b. The National Science Foundation should use existing granting authority to lead an effort to evaluate online educational resources, provide guidance about developing high quality online educational resources, and foster resource sharing of high quality online educational resources among all disciplines.
c. Increase funding to expedite the capture and mobilization of digital biological data. These data are needed to answer complex questions, such as those related to zoonotic diseases, plant pathogens, and environmental sustainability. With greater access to high-quality digital data (e.g. gene, tissue, microbial, video recordings, physical specimen images, environmental data), the scientific community can better maintain research productivity during regional or global disruptions by accessing and sharing data remotely. Efforts to mobilize these data must include efforts to link and integrate these data with physical specimens in scientific collections as these specimens are essential to validating research.
d. The federal Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections should work with representatives from non-federal collections serving organizations to identify strategies for increasing data access, integration, and sharing between federal and non-federal scientific collections.
e. There is a need for targeted economic assistance for natural history museums. These scientific institutions have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 related closures. Many rely on revenue from public visitation to support research and education programming, as well as general operations. These institutions are also working to accommodate the economic impacts to research grants, particularly for the support staff paid from these grants. As these institutions have been closed, collections care and management have been negatively impacted. Backlogs of work will confront staff upon their return, which will further hinder research and educational use of these specimens and their associated data. Institutions have begun furloughing and firing scientific staff, which is jeopardizing our national scientific workforce at the time when we need scientific information most.
f. There is a need for economic assistance for living collections, including botanic gardens, arboreta, and animal and microbe collections. These resources are critically important to our national research and education enterprise. There is great concern that as facilities have closed and only skeletal staffing (if any at all) has been available to maintain collections, these collections may experience significant loss of biological resources. Like natural history museums, these collections are in jeopardy of losing research and scientific support staff members due to anticipated budget cuts.
g. There is a need to provide supplemental funding for graduate students and post-doctoral researchers who have had research interrupted. Importantly, flexibility is required. For many biological research projects, the loss of a field season may fundamentally alter a research project. It may also be necessary to increase the number of post-doctoral research awards provided annually for several years, if universities and other research organizations are forced to freeze hiring because of constrained budgets. Without this flexibility and support, the United States will lose promising early career scientists as they leave the field to pursue other employment opportunities.
h. Resources should be appropriated to federal science funding agencies to enable them to make supplements to existing grants to help researchers accommodate for funds lost because of COVID-19.
3) “Shovel-Ready” Research Infrastructure
a. The biological diversity science community has developed a decadal research agenda to guide biodiversity collections enabled research and education. The Extended Specimen Network https://bcon.aibs.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/BCoN_March2019_FINAL.pdf and https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz140 builds on the advances we have made as a nation as a result of the National Science Foundation’s investments in the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections program. In brief, the ESN will mobilize data and develop new linkages within the scientific community to associate and integrate myriad data sources with physical specimens in our natural science collections. Mobilizing these data allows us to understand how species interact with each other, humans, and the environment. This understanding is key to our efforts to better model the potential spread of pathogens and parasites, to monitor and forecast changing distributions of economically significant invasive species, and to more efficiently identify significant genes or chemical compounds that offer promise for new pharmaceutical applications. Our efforts to digitize specimens and to integrate their data with other sources will stimulate advances in computer and information science that can improve logistical management of products – a challenge we now see routinely reported in the news as public health and emergency managers are endeavoring to ensure that appropriate resources are identified and positioned where they are needed.
A federal commitment of $1 billion toward these efforts over the next 10 years will make the United States the global leader in biological collections-enabled research, and spur new scientific discoveries that grow our economy, improve our public health and well-being, and increase our national security. This investment would support continued efforts to digitize biodiversity specimens and associated data, particularly entomological collections which still require significant attention despite their importance to public health and food security. The investment would support the rapid development and implementation of new cyberinfrastructure and information management tools, a rapid global biodiversity survey to collect and properly document biodiversity, additional biodiversity-related and biodiversity-enabled research, efforts to educate and train a new generation of scientists, and increased global coordination and collaboration. This initiative can be administered by the National Science Foundation.
b. Funds are needed to support laboratory, collections (living and non-living), and field station repairs and maintenance resulting from COVID-19 related closures and disruptions. These funds can be awarded from existing NSF Division of Biological Infrastructure programs. Resources to catalyze efforts by research facilities to database and digitally capture their data and records will reduce the risks of data loss in the event of future disruptions to operations. Funds should be provided to support the development, deployment, and training of scientists in the use of distributed research management and communication tools which can be used to maintain research and education progress when onsite work is not possible. These same tools can facilitate and support new distributed collaborations, domestically and internationally, enabling more collaboration to be done with fewer resources allocated to travel.
The Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections program has significantly advanced efforts to digitize biodiversity specimens. This program can be a model or expanded upon to support the development of additional tools and workflows for the mobilization of digital data by additional fields of study. The program has made its impact with a modest annual funding level of about $10 million. The impact from doubling or tripling this investment would be transformative.
4) Long-term Economic Stimulus/Recovery
a. There is an urgent need to identify, document, and study Earth’s biological diversity. Biodiversity is key to the key to safeguarding and growing our bioeconomy and enhancing our biosecurity. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate with significant implications for human well-being. As they go extinct, their genes, proteins, behaviors, and all other attributes are lost. We must rapidly survey global biodiversity so that we can maximize conservation of species as well as understand where to look in nature for possible bio-inspired solutions to the problems that threaten human health and wellbeing. Such a global survey requires a coordinated effort to mobilize a new generation of scientists and research support personnel. This is one way that we can rapidly employ biologists, informaticists, and computer scientists to address issues of immediate national concern.
The long-term sustainability of this effort will come from discoveries that catalyze the development of new tools and applications of the knowledge gained. Data managers and informaticists trained for this effort will have skills that make them strong candidates for future employment in other sectors, including logistics management, finance, precision medicine and agriculture, to name a few. As with the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) program, beneficiaries of this program will go on to pursue research support from other programs and sources. The iDigBio National Resource within the ADBC program has launched a national digital data conference which has proven to be a source of revenue to help strengthen and sustain the community focused on using digital data in biodiversity science and education. This new global biodiversity survey will also seed future research and education work that has yet to be conceived. The specimens and data captured as part of this global survey will be placed in natural history museums and recorded in databases that guarantees it will be available for future generations of scientists.
b. There are efforts underway within the biological sciences to improve the quantitative skills and literacy of faculty members involved with undergraduate instruction and for current undergraduate and graduate students. There is an opportunity to expand these National Science Foundation supported efforts to catalyze transformation of undergraduate education. In addition to providing future graduate and professional school students with necessary quantitative skills, it will ensure that bachelor’s degree graduates have the skills sought by employers in different sectors and from main street to wall street.
Thank you for your work on behalf of science during these challenging times. The Committee’s efforts to work in a bipartisan fashion to ensure that the needs of the scientific enterprise are met and that we are positioned to provide the scientific insights needed to respond to the SARS-CoV-2 crises and to reduce risks from future problems is greatly appreciated. Please do not hesitate to contact us if AIBS or our members may be of assistance to you.
Robert Gropp, Ph.D.