When research institutions and universities were forced to shut down in March, clinical trials, therapeutic development, and discovery science ground to a halt. While researchers are slowly returning to their labs and restarting their experiments, the scientific world is contending with a loss of productivity and funds that cannot be addressed by simply restarting the stopped clock.
Years of research designed to advance treatments and cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, and depression have been compromised. Researchers at public institutions have reported that critical tools in the development of medical therapies have been lost. Clinical research for diseases other than COVID have seen dramatic setbacks because patients have been unwilling or otherwise unable to assume the risk associated with in-person evaluation for a clinical trial. Some funders are helping researchers address these problems by rearranging budgets and awarding no-cost grant extensions. But such approaches do not take into account the extent of the losses incurred by the shutdown.
Personnel needed to be paid throughout the closures. Re-establishing animal and cell models to replace those that had to be destroyed requires new funds, not just an extension of funds. To make an analogy with the private sector, if science were a business, the last three months would be seen as a series of grievous losses, with the threat of bankruptcy always in the background. But scientific experimentation is not the same as business. The closures weren't just setbacks: our loved ones live with diseases that science is trying to find cures or treatments for, and the COVID-related setbacks of the last three months have resulted in slower development of — and, in some cases, a complete abandonment of — treatments with the potential to save lives.
Layered on top of the very real losses in the lab are the impacts on people — the dedicated researchers who quietly drive scientific progress. Academic science is a notoriously difficult career path: pre-COVID numbers suggest that just 23 percent of biomedical PhDs pursue a career in academic science. But since March, many scientists have seen their job security and long-term prospects thrown into question. Early-career scientists about to move into new faculty positions have had job offers rescinded or delayed, or are competing for fewer available openings. New faculty report struggling to collect sufficient data to be competitive in the federal grants process. Those who are parents may not be able to return to work, given the impact the pandemic has had on child care. This translates into fewer women in the lab, when there are already too few.
At this critical moment, the biomedical research community urgently needs philanthropists to take three steps:
1. Increase budgets for currently funded projects. Science funders know how important flexible funding is. Increasing grant budgets now not only will help mitigate some of the research setbacks of the last three months, it also will underwrite the additional personnel time and equipment needed to get back to square one on experiments that were abandoned.
2. Modify policies and programs to support vulnerable scientists. Science needs scientists. In order to provide those who are brave enough to pursue a career in scientific research with a fair shot, it is important to recognize that certain groups of scientists are more at risk of losing their funding, abandoning the field, or both due to COVID-related pressures. Postdoctoral fellows and newly minted research faculty need stable funding in order to establish their ideas. Female scientists who are also parents are facing greater childcare responsibilities — a fact that is already showing up in fewer grant submissions by women scientists, falling publication rates, and reduced participation in COVID research. And Black and brown scientists who face persistent roadblocks to advancement in their careers need support now more than ever to help them overcome decades of discrimination in funding as well as fewer publication and job opportunities.
3. Strengthen the health research sector. Finally, philanthropy must do more to ensure that organizations working to advance and support biomedical research stay afloat. These organizations play a key role in driving patient-focused progress and accelerating therapeutics in specific areas. Support for organizational overhead — keep-the-lights-on funding — is hopelessly "unsexy" but massively important, in that it keeps experts on the job who are critical to vetting and shepherding good science in its journey from the lab to real-world applications.
In a recent discussion about the actions needed to overcome COVID-19, Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, "People keep asking me, 'What's the one thing we have to do?' The one thing we have to do is understand that there is not one thing."
This is just as true for science in the context of the pandemic. COVID-related impacts on biomedical logistics, funding, and human talent have put the entire biomedical research ecosystem at risk. Without immediate attention and support for that research and the scientists who work to advance it, there is little hope we will develop new and improved treatments for the thousands of diseases that annually impact millions of people around the globe.
Cara Altimus, PhD, is a director at the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy.