Restoring the people and projects derailed by COVID-19 with essential funding

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Restore the people and projects derailed by COVID-19 with essential funding Late 2019 seemed like a good time to start a collaboration between our respective laboratories, to capitalize on the related research that we were conducting. Elizabeth Hillman’s lab had developed an exciting new microscopy method capable of high-speed, ultrahigh-throughput, high-content imaging of the in vivo and cleared retinal and spinal samples that Carol Mason studies. Together we received a small internal grant to build a new, dedicated swept confocally aligned planar excitation (SCAPE) microscope that would be set up to share with colleagues and collaborators throughout Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, as well as throughout the wider New York City community.

While we can’t make up for the time lost to reduced lab capacity and hiring freezes, we can ensure that we don’t lose scientists to the personal burdens the pandemic has placed on them.
And then the pandemic led to a lockdown. Some lab members became “essential workers” and had to suddenly focus on reducing animal colonies and ensuring that our data and access to our server systems could be remotely maintained. No equipment could be ordered, and nobody could go into the lab, so planned work such as building our new shared SCAPE instrument had to be put on hold. Although we focused on work that we could do remotely — prioritizing the analysis of data that we already had, writing up papers, and planning new studies — there were things we simply couldn’t do. Meanwhile, the clock kept ticking on grant funding, graduation dates, student visas, and work authorizations. Salaries needed to be paid, so budgets were spent, but many research projects lost valuable time, opportunities, momentum, and personnel. Planned collaborations and potential discoveries were derailed.

This story is not unique to us, nor to researchers in New York City.

With the loss of lab access, cell lines, animal models, expertise, and more, the pandemic has set back science in the U.S. for longer than labs were locked down. Francis Collins, then director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), testified to Congress in May of 2021 that the pandemic had left an estimated $16 billion impact on NIH-funded research and researchers. While we can’t make up for the time lost to reduced lab capacity and hiring freezes, we can ensure that we don’t lose scientists to the personal burdens that the pandemic has placed on them.

We believe Congress should therefore pass and fund the Research Investment to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act. The act would direct nearly $25 billion in supplemental funds to federal research agencies, including $10 billion to the NIH.

This funding would enable federal research agencies to offer extensions of grants, fellowships, and other time-limited programs to both trainees and established investigators. Importantly, the extensions would help women and underrepresented minorities — those who were disproportionately affected by disrupted training grants, research schedules, and child care responsibilities — return to the careers that they, and all of us, have invested so much in. The extensions would also provide the time necessary to rebuild following the tangible loss of resources such as instrument parts, reagents, animal models, and, importantly, expertise and collaborations.

The Biden administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2022 and appropriations proposed by the House and Senate have all recommended bold funding levels for the NIH, NSF, and other research agencies. Just as the RISE Act would help the scientific community to dig out from the hole that the pandemic has put us in, the proposed research budgets — which we believe Congress should also approve — would provide the resources we need to build a more resilient and productive research infrastructure and workforce. Congress should vote to enact this funding.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken from all of us — loved ones, time, opportunities, and mental and physical health. Yet we can limit further consequences by stepping up to support researchers who are considering stepping away from the lab. We urge Congress to provide the funding necessary to restore the people and projects that have been derailed by the pandemic.

Meet the authors

Elizabeth Hillman is a Herbert and Florence Irving Professor at the Zuckerman Institute and a professor of biomedical engineering and radiology (physics) at Columbia University. She has developed a wide range of optical imaging and microscopy and analysis methods for studying brain function in diverse model systems; email: [email protected].

Carol Mason is a professor of pathology and cell biology, neuroscience, and ophthalmic science (in ophthalmology) in Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, and she is former president of the Society for Neuroscience. Mason studies the formation of the pathway from eye to brain; email: [email protected].

The views expressed in ‘Biopinion’ are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of Photonics Media. To submit a Biopinion, send a few sentences outlining the proposed topic to [email protected]. Accepted submissions will be reviewed and edited for clarity, accuracy, length, and conformity to Photonics Media style.

Published: February 2022
BioOpinionSCAPE microscopeZuckerman InstituteMicroscopyNIHRISE ActCOVID-19

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