Effects of COVID-19 on the Federal Research and Development Enterprise


The federal research and development (R&D) enterprise is a large and complex system that includes government facilities and employees as well as federally funded work in industry, academia, and the non-profit sector. The nation’s response to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is affecting the federal R&D enterprise, and the federal government and others are trying to address those effects. A number of congressional and other policy issues may arise as the situation develops.

Implementation of social distancing guidelines had led many laboratories and R&D projects to close. Where possible, researchers have continued to work remotely, but R&D often requires physical access to unique facilities and equipment. Institutions have faced decisions about which projects—such as research on COVID-19 itself—are sufficiently essential that they should continue. Many scientific and technical conferences have also been cancelled, with consequences for the sharing and advancement of knowledge and for the conference organizers, which are now often faced with substantial cancellation costs. In some cases, conferences are continuing virtually.

Even for continuing R&D projects, there may be efficiency and quality impacts, additional costs, and challenges such as the closure of suppliers and service providers. Some resources dedicated to ongoing R&D are also being redirected toward work focused on COVID-19.

Other potential effects of the pandemic include unplanned costs for the shutdown and restarting of R&D projects that are suspended, delays in the availability of major new R&D equipment, the loss of anticipated revenues by some federal R&D agencies, uncertainty about the future stability of federal R&D funding if COVID-19 affects the government’s fiscal situation, and impacts on the graduation schedules and career prospects of students, postdoctoral researchers, and early-career faculty whose research is interrupted.

Federal actions to date to address these challenges include a wide variety of government-wide and agency-specific policy changes to accommodate the R&D community’s needs and provide agencies with additional flexibilities, as well as legislation enacted by Congress to provide supplemental funding for R&D and for R&D organizations affected by closures, and to provide new authorities to agencies.

Groups representing R&D organizations in industry and academia have proposed a variety of additional steps, including further increases in funding for the federal R&D agencies, more flexibility in the expenses that can be paid using federal R&D awards, and other support for R&D organizations in the form of loans, grants, and tax changes.

As the near-term and long-term effects of COVID-19 on the nation’s R&D enterprise become more apparent, Congress may seek to monitor those effects, develop a deeper understanding of their implications, and consider whether additional legislative actions are necessary.

Effects of COVID-19 on the Federal Research and Development Enterprise,” CRS Report R46309, April 10, 2020 (26-page PDFPDF)