Diermeier, Wente call for Congress to support research universities in COVID-19 relief package

Chancellor Daniel Diermeier (John Russell/Vanderbilt)
Chancellor Daniel Diermeier (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

Chancellor Daniel Diermeier and Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan R. Wente recently wrote to members of the Tennessee congressional delegation, urging them to support America’s leading research universities as they work through the ramifications of the COVID-19 global health pandemic.

Specifically, Diermeier and Wente call on Congress to provide at least $26 billion in additional funding to support and maintain the research workforce, mitigate the disruptions to federally supported research and core research facilities, and restart research that has been halted or slowed due to COVID-19. Noting that the coronavirus forced many researchers to halt all in-person data collection and prevented many researchers from continuing their work, the Vanderbilt leaders argue that, without supplemental research funding provided by Congress, “a gap in agency funding will put the research workforce, and U.S. competitiveness, at risk—especially the early-career workforce made up of graduate students and postdocs whose training and education in areas of national need will be cut short or limited.”

Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan R. Wente (Vanderbilt University)
Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan R. Wente (Vanderbilt University)

Concurrently with their letter, several members of Congress introduced, on a bipartisan basis, H.R. 7308, the Research Investment to Spark the Economy Act (RISE) Act. The legislation authorizes approximately $26 billion in supplemental funding for federal research agencies to ameliorate the tremendous disruption to federally funded research. The bill also provides for temporary regulatory relief due to the pandemic. The bill’s provisions are consistent with  Diermeier and Wente’s letter as well as recommendations by the Association of American Universities and a letter that over 180 members of the House (including Tennessee Reps. Jim Cooper (D) and Steve Cohen (D)) sent to House leaders in April.

Upon the bill’s introduction, the lawmakers said, “These researchers are essential to our nation’s public health, national security, economic growth and international competitiveness. Preserving our scientific infrastructure and protecting our innovation pipeline will help ensure U.S. leadership in the world and help us better respond to future pandemics.”

Reps. Cooper and Cohen have co-sponsored the legislation at Vanderbilt’s urging.

In addition to the research relief funding, Diermeier and Wente note that, “to sensibly, safely and swiftly ramp-up on-campus operations, universities require timely, temporary and targeted federal safe harbor from liability for illness or the spread of illness when good faith efforts are made to comply with applicable local, state and federal public health standards.” They call on Congress to enact such protections “that will permit universities acting sensibly, carefully and in good faith to begin to reopen.”

“We recognize the powerful message we send by bringing students, faculty and staff back to campus, albeit in a new normal,” write Diermeier and Wente. “As a major employer in Middle Tennessee and an inextricable part of the fabric of our community, we are determined to return our campus to its mission of educating and training America’s future scientists, engineers, public servants and leaders; conducting ground-breaking research to find cures and improve lives; and preserving employment for thousands of Tennesseans.”

Vanderbilt’s Office of Federal Relations has led the university’s federal advocacy efforts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, advocating for federal support for universities as well as the research enterprise through both supplemental funding and regulatory flexibilities.