COVID & Racism, their effects on the university scientific enterprise and what Congress is doing (or not doing) about them


What a summer we have had.

The killing of George Floyd and others has sparked renewed outrage over systemic racism in our country. Protests and demonstrations across the nation are calling for real change.

The pandemic continues unabated at a cost to the health and livelihoods of millions of Americans and the loss of life for far too many.

The repercussions of these things are being felt deeply in the scientific community. How do early-career mathematicians make the research connections they need without being able to travel to conferences? How are we to sustain our nation’s research infrastructure when university labs have been shuttered? How can scientific evidence be used to address societal racism? How can we address racism within the scientific community?

I know many of you have been working on these issues all summer. And, many of you have been leading change, and the charge for change to dismantle racism in the math community for a very long time.

My goal here is to describe some actions Congressional members have taken over the summer to address racism and research relief for strained universities.

With COVID research relief, I am not talking about developing vaccines, or studying the transmission of the disease, or the designing and manufacturing of PPE. Rather, I am talking about how research done on university campuses—more broadly—has been delayed or disrupted by the pandemic and how Congress is thinking about helping out university scientists and science students as we rebuild the university scientific infrastructure through the pandemic and—looking to the future—when it subsides.

Here are a few examples:

  • Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Chair of the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology, has called for a study of “the influence of systemic racism in academia on the careers of individuals belonging to racial and ethnic groups historically underrepresented in the scientific, technical, and medical workforce.” The AMS is one of over 70 societies that has supported this request.
  • She also introduced the Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act (HR 8044) which would help bridge the gap for recent PhDs, in an effort to keep them in the STEM workforce pipeline. This is a narrowly aimed bipartisan effort, requesting \$250 million of support for the NSF to “forestall the loss of research talent by establishing a temporary earlycareer research fellowship program.” Along with many other societies and universities, the AMS has endorsed this bill. At a much larger scale, to help all science rebound, there is
  • The RISE Act (HR 7308, S 4286), which is aimed at repairing the damage done to the research infrastructure and to researchers on university campuses. This bill has been introduced in both House and Senate and has bipartisan support. The AMS offers you the opportunity to ask your own members of Congress to support this bill. The request is for \$26 billion in emergency relief funding to be given to various science-funding agencies, including \$3 billion for the NSF. Funds that could, for example, be used to enable graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and Principal Investigators to complete work that was disrupted by the pandemic.
  • The House Science Committee held a hearing on “The Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on University Research” , on September 9, focusing on the RISE Act. Committee members heard from scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, Purdue University, Oakland University and the University of Illinois system about how universities are approaching challenges to existing research and also for recruiting and nurturing students so that they begin and then stay the course pursuing their dreams of becoming scientists. The witnesses shared what the fall semester is looking like so far on their campuses. In her opening statement, Representative Haley Stevens noted “The impacts to our wider STEM pipeline could be devastating. Undergraduate students are missing out on critical hands-on training. Graduate students are worried there won’t be funding for them to finish their research projects and graduate. Post-docs and other early-career researchers are desperately searching for jobs in a severely contracted academic job market. Early data indicate that the impacts of these challenges are more pronounced for women and other groups historically underrepresented in STEM.” In his opening statement, graduate student Ryan Muzzio gave terrific and brave testimony. He spoke about the importance of traveling to perform research and network with colleagues and how disruptions to this have damaged progress toward his career goals; the “linchpin” role of graduate students in the education system; his concerns about his international fellow students and their situation; his own experiences as a black male student; and his concerns about job prospects. It was important to hear his perspective and I much appreciate the committee’s effort to include student voices.
  • The Promoting Fair and Effective Policing Through Research Act (HR 7252)—supported thus far only by Democrats—legislates that science would be used to inform policing reforms. It “directs the National Science Foundation to fund social and behavioral research on policing policies, including the causes, consequences, and mitigation of police violence, supports collaborative partnerships between social science researchers, law enforcement agencies, and civil society organizations; …..The bill also directs NIST to expand its biometric identification research and standards activities, with a focus on identifying and minimizing biases in such systems.”

The very wide range of challenges brought on by COVID has become the top concern for universities over the past six months. Before that, foreign ties and the current administration’s policy changes and investigations were the top issue; this remains a central concern for university research Vice Presidents. I have written about what the AMS (together with sister math societies) are doing to support our international students and colleagues, and also about balancing openness in science with security. I am really pleased that over 1500 letters have been sent to Congress using the AMS Take Action center through the link provided in my May 13 post on the President’s proclamation suspending the entry of immigrants to the US (this is no longer an active opportunity at our Take Action center). Alarming news continues to surface on this issue, such as described in this recent Chronicle article.

What else is going on in Congress vis-à-vis relevant to mathematics?

  • The RISE Act is proposed authorization legislation; Congress is also working on appropriations for research relief. This includes the CARES Act, which was made law in late March, and the now-introduced HEALS and HEROES Congress is also working on “the normal appropriations process” – an article about this process appeared in the September Notices (the “Washington Update”). Updates are regularly provided by Matt Hourihan, the director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). At this stage, it is very difficult to imagine that Congress will do anything on appropriations other than to put in place a Continuing Resolution, which would likely run through the beginning of December. Congress must act on appropriations by October 1 to avoid a government shutdown and a CR would avoid a shutdown.
  • The NSF is undergoing its periodic re-authorization. Authorizing laws do not fund the NSF but instead set broad policies for the operation of the agency. What sort of broad guidance is this? NSF authorizations in recent years have, for example, requested the NSF support graduate students. There have been other bills introduced in Congress that are related to this re-authorization, including the Endless Frontier Act (described in posts in this blog on June 9 and 18).

I hope you are all off to decent academic years and that your students are living up to the challenges.

And, every time I get the opportunity to remind you……remember to VOTE on NOVEMBER 3!

If you do not know how, where or when to vote, have a look at this handy Washington Post resource. Your state’s Secretary of State website will likely provide full information about your ballot and how to vote in your locality. Information can be found here.

You can read the Trump administration’s latest priorities for scientific research and development in their annual memo release on August 14.

You can read about Biden’s research and development agenda here.


About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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