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In this Wednesday, March 11, 2020 file photo, a technician prepares COVID-19 coronavirus patient samples for testing at a laboratory in New York's Long Island. Wide scale testing is a critical part of tracking and containing infectious diseases. But the U.S. effort has been plagued by a series of missteps, including accuracy problems with the test kits the CDC sent to other labs and bureaucratic hurdles that slowed the entrance of large, private sector labs. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
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Gary Ostrander: Federal help needed to maintain research, innovation hit hard by COVID-19

Congressional action is necessary now to keep American science from losing ground it may not recover for years.

As the U.S. economy reopens and local, state and federal officials continue to parse both the health and economic challenges ahead, the research community is set to play a pivotal role in those discussions.

Researchers at Florida State University and around the globe are working at a breakneck pace to advance the world’s response to COVID-19. At FSU, scientists are undertaking a vast number of projects related to this unprecedented pandemic, including the creation of a new material for sterilizing surfaces, research into the virus’ impact on the human cell, understanding the potential for learning losses on K-12 students and much more.

At the same time, many students and researchers at the beginning of their careers — and the science they are poised to produce — have been adversely impacted by the pandemic.

Congressional action is key to continuing the progress that American researchers and innovators have made both in combating the coronavirus and overall scientific discovery. The facilities that house and train these researchers also are important job creators in our communities.

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), science and engineering accounts for approximately 5% of all U.S. jobs. The Institute for Research on Innovation and Science estimates federal research funds are used to support more than 560,000 people on campuses across the country — over half of whom are students or trainees.

Support for these facilities and the people who work and train there is vital for the creation and maintenance of the scientific and creative pipeline that is critical to American innovation.

At Florida State, for example, the coronavirus outbreak has directly impacted the delivery schedule of an innovative 40-tesla superconducting magnet at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (MagLab). The magnet’s groundbreaking ability to spend virtually limitless time at peak magnetic field is increasingly requested by the physicists, chemists, engineers and biologists who come to the MagLab from all over the world to complete their experiments.

The MagLab was in the middle of a one-year grant from NSF to develop a conceptual design for this superconducting magnet when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, shutting down the laboratory. Engineers continued with computer-based design as much as possible from home, but this magnet uses new materials and new concepts that must be tested in the laboratory.

Because of the coronavirus, the one-year project suffered a four-month delay in acquiring lab-based test results. The project needs an at-cost extension to ensure that engineers can complete all planned experiments to deliver the best conceptual design for this innovative technology.

Florida State’s Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science provides another example of the impact of this pandemic and the need for federal intervention.

Associate professor of Oceanography Robert Spencer leads a research team that does fieldwork across the globe to answer questions that are central to improving our understanding of how the Earth works. Travel restrictions prompted by the pandemic have halted important parts of their work.

Much of his team’s work focuses on Arctic ecosystems. Their fieldwork can only be completed in the summer months, so the loss of the 2020 season will set research back at least a full year. Spencer estimates that losses to his program alone could total nearly $500,000 if recovery funding is not provided.

Federal research agencies are important partners of colleges and universities. Florida State University is a member of The Science Coalition, a leading voice to ensure these partnerships remain strong and the STEM workforce remains supported. Together, we are urging Congress to provide at least $26 billion in funds related to COVID-19 disruptions that would support research personnel and facilities while aiding educational programs that are cultivating the next generation of STEM leaders.

Without this funding, future innovations in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics, space exploration and digital agriculture — to name just a few — will be hindered while agencies are forced to abandon these projects or use future appropriations intended for new research to cover existing grants. The young scientists working now toward the discoveries of the future will face difficult decisions as they consider diminished career opportunities.

Congressional action is necessary now to keep American science from losing ground it may not recover for years.

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Gary Ostrander is vice president for Research at Florida State University.

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