While external research funding to colleges and universities has been holding steady, the economic downturn could strain their research budgets, according to a new report from research and consulting firm Ithaka S+R.
Their outlook hinges partly on whether the Biden administration provides more support for research activities, particularly work the health crisis interrupted, the authors wrote.
Research costs are often greater than what grants provide, and without reliable funding sources colleges could be forced to pare back these activities.
The pandemic has stalled research and made it harder for some universities to access their grants for existing projects, though it's unclear so far whether the new administration will address these issues. Support made available through recent relief legislation has focused instead on combating the coronavirus.
The coronavirus relief package that was enacted in late December gave nearly $1.3 billion to the National Institutes of Health to support research into the long-term effects of COVID-19 and the development of diagnostics for the disease.
The package also devotes funding for research to other government agencies, but it came up short of what higher education groups were seeking. In May, four prominent associations wrote a letter to Congressional leaders requesting at least $26 billion in emergency relief funding across several federal agencies, including the NIH, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Defense.
The requested funds wouldn't be enough to expand research, they wrote, but rather they would help colleges defray costs associated with pandemic-related disruptions and step up existing projects that had been slowed or paused.
The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to start voting on another coronavirus relief package this week. It includes $100 million for the Institute of Education Sciences to conduct research into learning loss caused by the pandemic.
The pandemic forced many institutions to pause their research activities and they haven't been able to progress as much as they would have otherwise, the Ithaka S+R report notes
With these delays, colleges have been barred from accessing some of their federal grants even though they still must pay researcher salaries and other costs. Although some federal agencies relaxed their policies early in the pandemic to allow colleges to continue to access funds, some of them have recently rescinded those exceptions, the authors noted.
General funds used for core research activities are also at risk during the economic downturn. Some evidence points to colleges already seeing cuts in these areas. Of libraries with finalized budgets, three-quarters had been trimmed for the 2021 fiscal year, according to a separate Ithaka S+R survey last year of 638 library directors.