FYI: Science Policy News

Third Coronavirus Response Bill Includes Research Boost

MAR 27, 2020
Coronavirus response legislation signed into law today includes funding to expand federal research efforts and aid universities disrupted by the pandemic.
Mitch Ambrose headshot
Director of Science Policy News American Institute of Physics


A transmission electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19.

(Image credit – National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases / Rocky Mountain Laboratories)

Today, Congress passed its third and largest legislative package responding to the coronavirus pandemic, providing roughly $2 trillion in economic relief measures.

The legislation focuses on providing direct cash payments to individuals and families as well as aiding distressed sectors of the economy, including by establishing a $14 billion relief fund for universities. The bill also includes supplemental appropriations to shore up federal coronavirus research efforts.

The Senate approved the bill on March 25 on a vote of 96 to 0, and the House passed it today by voice vote. President Trump signed the bill shortly afterward. A summary of the bill prepared by the Senate Appropriations Committee is available here .

The legislation comes on the heels of two smaller coronavirus bills passed earlier this month that included initial economic relief provisions and $8.3 billion in supplemental appropriations for federal agencies to step up their response.

New science agencies enlisted in the response

The first relief package included $836 million for the National Institutes of Health to accelerate vaccine research efforts, alongside boosts to other public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Trump administration sought additional emergency funds in a supplementary budget proposal sent to Congress on March 17, and the latest legislation exceeds those requests. Among its provisions for federal agencies, the legislation provides another round of additional funding for NIH and also loops in other science agencies to support the federal response. It specifically includes:

  • $945 million for NIH, of which $706 million is for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; $103 million for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; $60 million for the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; $36 million for the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; $30 million for the Office of the Director; and $10 million for the National Library of Medicine.
  • $415 million for the Department of Defense’s health R&D activities, including development of vaccines, anti-viral drugs, and diagnostic tests.
  • $99.5 million for the Department of Energy in support of “access to scientific user facilities in the Office of Science and National Nuclear Security Administration, including equipment, enabling technologies, and personnel associated with the operations of those scientific user facilities.” DOE is offering researchers access to its supercomputers through the COVID-19 HPC Consortium , and its light sources are being used for structural biology studies of the coronavirus.
  • $75 million for the National Science Foundation’s research programs and $1 million for other coronavirus related expenses, such as grant administration. NSF has activated its RAPID grant mechanism to support coronavirus research.
  • $66 million for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, of which $10 million is for the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals and $6 million is for “measurement science to support viral testing and biomanufacturing.” The remaining $50 million is for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, which assists small and mid-sized manufacturing businesses.
  • $12.5 million for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, of which $7.5 million is for “spatial analysis and geographic information system mapping of infectious disease hot spots, including cruise ships.”
  • $2.25 million for EPA’s Science and Technology program, of which $1.5 million is for research on “methods to reduce the risks from environmental transmission of coronavirus via contaminated surfaces or materials.” The remainder is for the cleaning of facilities and equipment.

The legislation also contains funds to cover coronavirus-related disruptions at certain science agencies, including:

  • $60 million for NASA to support “operational adjustments associated with mission delays caused by NASA center closures.”
  • $28 million for DOE to cover coronavirus response costs, including those related to supporting employee telework.
  • $20 million for “continuity of operations” at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, such as functions of the National Weather Service that protect life and property

Moreover, the legislation provides federal agencies the authority to reimburse contractors for “any paid leave, including sick leave, a contractor provides to keep its employees or subcontractors in a ready state.” The provision only applies to contractors “whose employees or subcontractors cannot perform work on a site that has been approved by the federal government, including a federally owned or leased facility or site, due to facility closures or other restrictions, and who cannot telework because their job duties cannot be performed remotely.”

Many federal research facilities are operated by contractors and have been forced to shutter or pare back their work on account of the pandemic.

Relief falls short of universities’ request

A $30.75 billion “Education Stabilization Fund” created by the legislation includes $14.24 billion for higher education institutions and $13.50 billion for primary and secondary schools. The remainder is for a grant program that governors can use to support institutions at any level.

At least half of the money for higher education institutions must go toward “emergency financial aid grants to students for expenses related to the disruption of campus operations.” The bill adds that these include “eligible expenses under a student’s cost of attendance, such as food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and child care.”

Universities had hoped the legislation would provide more expansive relief measures. A set of major university associations asked Congress to provide about $50 billion in emergency aid and an additional $13 billion for covering costs associated with disruptions to research.

The associations proposed the $13 billion go toward a “four-point strategy” aimed at keeping university personnel on payroll, increasing support for COVID-19-related research, addressing inactivity at research facilities, and covering costs of stopping and restarting research such as replacing biological samples.

Congressional leaders have indicated they will likely pursue a fourth coronavirus relief package, giving universities and other organizations another opportunity to seek assistance. Additional support for research could also be pursued through the appropriations process for fiscal year 2021.

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