By Connor Dacey, GSA Science Policy Fellow

January 20th, 2020. This was the date that the first case of the novel Coronavirus, deemed COVID-19, was officially confirmed in the United States. Now eight months later, there have been more than 7 million confirmed positive cases across the country and more than 200,000 deaths as a result of this deadly disease. Lives, both personal and professional, have been turned upside down and an era of mask-wearing and social distancing, and working from home has become the new norm. Universities, research institutions, and laboratories are no exception; they have faced hardships trying to figure out how to maintain operations and facilitate learning while also keeping faculty, students, and researchers safe. This blog post will focus on some of the ways in which Congress has tried to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on the research community, specifically focusing on two pieces of legislation: The Research Investment to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act (H.R. 7308, S. 4286) and The Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act (H.R. 8044).

Before discussing these two bills, it should be noted that COVID-19 has also affected members of Congress and the overall legislative process. To date, there are 67 members of Congress who are or have been quarantined, tested positive, or have been exposed to someone with the virus. In the late-spring, the House passed a rule change to allow proxy voting for floor votes and remote committee meetings. A total of four pieces of relief legislation have been enacted thus far; all were enacted during the early times of the pandemic (March and April). Since then, Congress has not passed additional COVID-19-related legislation. However, both the RISE Act and Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act have gained some buzz and attention.

The Research Investment to Spark the Economy Act, or more commonly referred to as the RISE Act, was introduced in the House on June 24th, 2020 by Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO-1). It currently has 131 co-sponsors, 121 Democrats and 10 Republicans. This bill authorizes up to $26 billion to be used as COVID-19 emergency relief for science agencies. More specifically, it “authorizes the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, the Interior, and Health and Human Services and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, and Environmental Protection Agency to provide support for research regarding COVID-19 or research disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic”. The RISE Act has the support of both GSA and the broader scientific community. In fact, GSA endorsed the principals of RISE Act in a letter to Congress that recommended significant increase in scientific research funding across federal science agencies, maintenance and growth of the STEM workforce, and investment in essential research infrastructure.

The House Science, Space, and Technology, one of the six committees with jurisdiction over the bill, held a hearing on September 9th, 2020. The hearing was specifically focused on the impacts of COVID-19 on university research. Three witnesses were Vice Presidents for research and innovation at their respective universities, and a final witness was a Ph.D. student. Each of the witnesses described how the virus dramatically affected research operations. For example, they described how the virus has caused a hiring freeze for academic positions across the country, caused both graduate and undergraduate students to pause their research or delay graduation, and has slowed scientific progress. They each voiced their support for the RISE Act, and all the committee members that spoke at the hearing also advocated for the bill.

If passed, universities and institutions would receive funding to support graduate students, post-docs, technical staff, researchers, and faculty impacted by COVID-19. It would also cover the increased costs of construction of scientific facilities and equipment that have been delayed because of COVID-19, while also being used to reconfigure laboratories to safely resume on-site research activities that were temporarily closed. Additionally, the bill supports extending and expanding previous financial awards that were given to universities or researchers before COVID-19, and gives additional grants to institutions of higher education that specifically research the “behavioral, social, or economic effects of COVID-19.”

Graduate students Erzsebet Vincent (left) and Paul Klimov (now at Google) investigate quantum bits in semiconductors at the University of Chicago’s (UChicago) Institute for Molecular Engineering. Credit: David Awschalom, University of Chicago/NSF

The Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act was introduced more recently on August 14th, 2020 by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30), Chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. It currently has 17 co-sponsors, 13 of which are Democrats and four are Republicans. This bill authorizes up to $250 million to the National Science Foundation to support early-career researchers and post-docs to continue their research that may have been impacted by COVID-19. There is a major concern that COVID-19 will cause many early-career researchers to explore other industries for employment due to hiring freezes and lack of current research opportunities. This bill was specifically developed to prevent this loss.

Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced the RISE ACT in the Senate on July 22nd, 2020. Currently, the bill has five additional cosponsors, three Republicans and two Democrats. An amended version of bill was both discussed and approved at The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on September 16th, 2020. Among other changes made to the bill, the committee included language to allow programs similar to those proposed in the Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act. For example, this amendment stresses the need to support undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and administrative and technical support staff whose research is at risk or has been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the bill calls for additional research opportunities for up to two years for such individuals. It also provides supplemental funding to a research institution to extend the duration of financial awards disrupted because of COVID-19.

Both the RISE Act and Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act are intended to mitigate the negative effects of COVID-19 on the research and higher education communities. These bills align with GSA’s missions to support public investment research, specifically in earth science and mineral and energy resources research. It will be interesting to see if these bills can gather more support as they move through the legislative process, with limited time remaining in the session.