ASBMB calls for targeted COVID-19 relief for junior scientists

Background: As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting academic and industry laboratory shutdowns across the United States, training for the next generation of biomedical scientists has been delayed. In many instances, this delay and the shutdowns are threatening taxpayers’ investments in the scientific workforce and in life-saving and life-improving research.   

The issue: Junior scientists are a fundamental component to the scientific workforce and many in the life sciences are funded by federal research grants using taxpayer dollars. As a result of the pandemic, junior scientists are suffering disproportionately compared to others in the American research enterprise. 

According to a December 2020 COVID-19 impact survey by the National Institutes of Health, students, postdoctoral fellows and early-career researchers were more likely to say the pandemic was causing negative impacts on their work and career trajectories than other groups. Almost 70% of trainees on visas reported lower job productivity, and 76% of trainees on visas reported that the pandemic will have a negative impact on their career trajectories. Similarly, a survey by the journal Nature found that the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered eight out of 10 postdoctoral researchers' ability to conduct experiments or collect data — activities that are necessary for scientific publication and for career advancement. Nearly two-thirds of respondents told Nature in the fall of 2020 that they believe that the pandemic has negatively affected their career prospects. Most alarmingly, according to a National Science Foundation report published in December 2020, about 25% of graduate students said they expected it would take longer to complete their degrees than they previously had anticipated. 

All of these challenges that have resulted from the pandemic—delays completing graduate education, finishing formal training, looking for full-time employment—have left junior scientists in a vulnerable position as existing grants to support them were funded for standard timelines that are no longer applicable because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to the NSF, this gap in junior scientists’ careers could result in a significant loss of STEM talent in the coming years for the American research enterprise if there is no effort to provide targeted support for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are trying to transition from getting their degree or finalizing their training to formally entering the STEM workforce.  

Once junior scientists stop doing active research, it’s very difficult for them to re-enter the research enterprise. This leak in the pipeline can result in a significant loss to the STEM workforce and thus a significant loss of already-invested federal dollars. 

The solution: Congress should pass legislation that provides for an additional year of funding for scientists and students who grants expired in 2020 before they could complete their research and/or training. This would allow investigators to complete important research and to complete the training of next generation researchers support on their grants.  

While all workers in the scientific enterprise have been affected by the pandemic, we also recommend a prioritization strategy that focuses on people whose work has been most affected by the pandemic:

  1. Early-stage investigators
  2. Women scientists
  3. Underrepresented minorities
  4. Investigators lacking alternative funding sources.