02:04 PM

Statement of Jeff Isaacson, USRA President and CEO, to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.





Update on How the COVID19 Pandemic Is Affecting Universities Engaged in Space-Related
Research and Education

May 13, 2020

Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Cantwell, and members of the Committee, thank you for requesting an update on how the COVID19 pandemic is affecting universities engaged in space- related research and education, and thank you for your leadership, throughout this pandemic, and for the assistance provided to universities in the CARES Act. I appreciate the opportunity to provide the Committee with this perspective, on behalf of the university community engaged in space-related research and education.

I serve as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), an association of universities deeply involved in our Nation's space program. USRA was formed by the National Academy of Sciences in 1969, at the height of the Apollo program. In concert with the vision of NASA Administrator James Webb, USRA was created to provide a means of collaboration among the U.S. Government, universities, and other research organizations toward the development and application of space-related science, technology, and engineering. Our mission is to advance the space- and aeronautics-related sciences and exploration through innovative research, technology, and education programs. We celebrated our 50th anniversary last year, as NASA completed its 61st.

USRA’s governance is grounded in 113 Ph.D.-granting universities, spanning 40 U.S. states and 10 countries. The universities establish USRA’s bylaws, elect members to our board of trustees, elect new university members of USRA, and provide guidance on public policy and advocacy. Each of these universities has Ph.D.-granting space science and/or engineering programs, in order to qualify for membership. Our advocacy is guided by our university membership, to provide an insightful voice in Washington on issues important to this part of the university community.

As you know, the university community educates the next generation of space scientists and engineers, and it embraces that mission in close cooperation with NASA. Together with universities, moreover, NASA plays a crucial role in developing the next generation of space professionals that will be able to design and deploy the U.S. space systems of the future. Training our future space workforce has significant implications for national defense, as well as civilian space applications. In the defense realm, U.S. space assets are critical to applications from communications, to navigation, to reconnaissance and surveillance, to meteorology. Space has been described as “the ultimate high ground,” and recent efforts to develop new operational doctrine within the Department of Defense put space on par with other warfighting domains, including air, land, maritime, and cyber.

Now, more than ever, partnership is needed between government and academia. Space-related research is typically only a modest part of the overall research portfolio at universities, but it has outsize impact on the U.S. space enterprise. It is imperative to our Nation’s future space workforce that we continue to prioritize investments that will advance our knowledge, create new industries and jobs, and give our students the technical background in space science and engineering that is necessary to succeed in a competitive world economy.

I am deeply concerned about the impacts of the COVID19 pandemic on the university community, including, in particular, that part of the community engaged in space-related research and education. After only a few months, I fear the pandemic is already having a deleterious effect on the pipeline of talent of our future space scientists and engineers. I also worry that disruptions in current funding may lead promising students to take alternative career paths away from space.

As a part of our effort to respond to the Committee, I requested input from senior university faculty engaged in space-related research and education at our member universities. From their responses, I will outline five common themes on how the COVID19 pandemic is affecting this vital capacity at our Nation’s universities:

  1. Disruption to teaching and education;
  2. Financial damage;
  3. Impact on students;
  4. Impact on graduate and post-graduate training; and
  5. Impact on our Nation’s research, especially space research.

Following that, I will provide recommendations for Congressional assistance.

USRA strongly supports the recommendations recently presented to the Committee by the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), the American Council on Education (ACE), and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). The recommendations I provide in this update are consistent with, and complement, those efforts.

To begin, in answer to one of the Committee’s requests, I will describe the efforts USRA itself has undertaken to help during the COVID19 pandemic.

USRA recently hosted a national conference call to connect members of the NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) leadership to leaders within the university community engaged in Earth and space science research. NASA SMD participants provided a brief update on important measures being undertaken in response to COVID-19 to sustain the strength of the Nation’s university Earth and space science research enterprise, including steps to protect the health of faculty, staff, and students contributing to NASA’s mission. The majority of time was devoted to questions from the university community to the NASA SMD participants. USRA invited representatives from 130 universities to participate, and we ended up with over 100 universities joining in.

USRA works closely with universities, NASA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy on many activities, several of which directly drive our nation’s space workforce development. Below, I highlight three important programs that provide student internships and postdoctoral fellowships at U.S. Federal laboratories, and what USRA has done to help ensure some continuity for these programs.

How USRA is Responding in the Recovery from the COVID 19 Pandemic:

  • USRA NASA Academic Mission Services (NAMS) Program

As part of USRA’s efforts to support the Nation’s aeronautics research and workforce development, USRA is leading efforts in the NASA Academic Mission Services (NAMS) Program at NASA’s Ames Research Center to transition it to an online format. This includes a new Aviation Data Science course that is now being implemented with a distance learning approach, utilizing data from the FAA System Wide Information Management (SWIM) and NASA Airspace Technology Demonstration 2 (ATD 2) systems. The online version of the course is currently being taught with participants from the existing aeronautics workforce at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and a new Aviation Data Science course is being developed with a university for the fall 2020 term to develop the next generation aeronautics workforce.

Efforts are underway to develop an approach to scale this effort so that the existing and future workforce for airlines and other aviation stakeholders may emerge from the COVID- 19 crisis with new capabilities, which lead the world by utilizing data-science informed approaches to air transportation. USRA has also transitioned its NAMS Student R&D Program to a virtual format for summer 2020 internships, with planning underway to expand online engagement of student teams during the 2020-2021 academic year for hands-on projects that align with national interests in Advanced Aerial Mobility (AAM) research.

  • USRA NASA Internships and Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Scholars

Recognizing the importance of continued retention in our STEM workforce pipeline in the U.S., USRA is currently undertaking efforts to transition both the NASA Internship Program and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Scholars Program to a virtual format. Leveraging an array of online platforms, and working in close collaboration with both NASA and AFRL, USRA will enable internship orientations and enrichment activities and provide students with engaging lectures from esteemed subject matter experts. USRA is also working to acquire technology assets for students, including laptops and VPN access, to allow interns to conduct research projects remotely, securely, and effectively. During this summer, USRA expects to administer internships for more than 1,100 students representing numerous high schools, colleges, and universities nationwide. Here is one comment we received from Samantha Labrecht, a junior at the University of New Mexico, majoring in biology:

“I really appreciate everyone's hard work in putting this together for us while making sure to take safety precautions. This is a trying time and this internship is a real honor for me. I'm so glad I will still get to have a rewarding experience thanks to you all. Here's to a great summer!”

  • USRA NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP)

USRA has worked closely with NASA to ensure that NPP can continue, as normally as possible, during the COVID19 pandemic. Proposal submissions, review, and selection processes for fellows were conducted virtually, and took place by March 1, on schedule. USRA has a temporary policy, approved by NASA, that allows new fellows to begin their fellowship remotely, and continue for the duration of the pandemic. Written approval is required from their research advisor and NASA center representative to verify that they can telework effectively on their research project.

Let me now describe what we have learned about the impact of the COVID19 pandemic from senior university faculty. These individuals are engaged in space-related research and education at our member universities, and they graciously provided first-hand inputs on this topic to USRA.

(1) COVID 19’s Disruption in Teaching and Education at Universities:

As you know, teaching in science and engineering programs at universities is done with large groups in lectures, smaller lectures in specialty areas, and in laboratory classes that both demonstrate physical principles, close up, while giving students practical training. Many universities have been able to switch large classes to remote learning, using services such as ZOOM. Universities cannot, however, use remote learning to demonstrate scientific processes to large groups. Student learning requires individual experiences. This requires instruction in small groups, typically with teaching assistants. Essential hands-on training at universities has ceased almost entirely.

With classes being moved online, other difficulties have emerged. Virtual classes now reach students, throughout their day, in various time zones across the country and around the world. For some students, classes are held in the middle of the night. Another problem is that not all students have the internet access needed to make online learning accessible.

Online learning will continue throughout the summer for most schools. If campuses reopen in the fall, classes and schedules are forecast to be significantly disrupted, because of the need for social distancing.

(2) Financial Damage to Universities:

Accounting for lost revenue in tuition, fees, housing, conferences, meetings, cancelled intercollegiate athletics and events, some universities have assessed the financial impact of the COVID19 pandemic to be in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. This financial damage to universities will worsen, if classes do not resume in the fall.

Schools are beginning to impose hiring and promotion freezes for postdoctoral researchers, research scientists, and faculty. I can also report that adjunct faculty layoffs are occurring.

Many universities have also incurred the costs of donating massive quantities of personal protective equipment (PPE) from their labs. They have assumed the cost of COVID19 testing for thousands of students, faculty and staff. Some schools have provided partial reimbursement to students for housing, and they have purchased licenses for faculty and staff for video instruction, conferencing, and proctoring of examinations.

The stimulus bills enacted into law, while helpful, are making up for only a small fraction of these kinds of losses. Some universities are considering salary reductions, while others have begun layoffs. Universities have also reported increased teaching loads, which will have major impact on university research.

Tuition and fee declines are anticipated, because cost fee structures for virtual courses are different from traditional on-campus delivery models, and because of economic uncertainties faced by current and potential students and their families. As university closures continue, additional budget cuts will rise.

I can also report that industry investments in universities are declining, in some cases.

Below are quotes from faculty at some of our Nation’s leading space research universities, describing how the pandemic has caused significant financial damage:

“Starting June 1, 2020, my center will lose over 60% of its university support with additional budget cuts underway on a regular (monthly) basis. This has already resulted in the loss of all but one of my research faculty / postdoc positions. My understanding is that none of this funding will be returned. If so, external funding will need to be more than doubled (immediately,) in order to maintain current workload and personnel.”

“The closure of my lab (which occurred in March) will become a large liability, if not reversed within the next month or so. It is difficult for students to produce the data required to meet grant deliverables, publication requirements, dissertation requirements, etc., when they are not allowed on campus or in the lab.”

“We will need supplemental funds to complete the research obligation. It seems likely that tuition losses and other student revenue losses are going to require substantial cuts to university funding over the next year (at least).”

“Corporate partnerships have come to a halt. We anticipate at least a years' postponement of plans. Our initiative's budget will likely fall by 30%.”

(3) Impact on Students at Universities:

Graduation ceremonies are a major part of the university experience. Needless to say, they have lost much of their impact and meaning during this epoch of virtual presence. Most, if not all, commencement ceremonies for spring 2020 will be conducted virtually. In addition, the graduation of many has been delayed for reasons of canceled classes, postponed classes, and sickness. Some students are also affected by a loss of financial support during this period, due to the loss of a student job, or employment within their supporting family.

As previously mentioned, the adjustment of students to remote instruction and online classes has been difficult, especially if they have internet connectivity issues. Depending on how universities grade students, this can potentially have an adverse impact on student scholarships, as well as student admissions to graduate and professional schools.

International collaborations and study-abroad opportunities are ending, which ultimately could lead to a stagnation of innovation. The long-term impact has yet to be determined, but we should identify ways to ensure our Nation continues to attract, train, and retain the top worldwide talent.

Here is a story shared by a professor at a major research university, which details the hardship one of his students is facing:

“When the pandemic-associated shut-downs occurred, my student was about two months from his PhD defense, working mightily to polish the final draft of his dissertation. With the shutdowns, childcare centers are shut down. Additionally, with his wife's highly demanding pandemic-related work, he is suddenly a full-time dad of a young daughter, looking for slivers of time to work on his dissertation. (Happy to say, he has sent his examination committee a very good draft, well in time.) For his post-grad plan, he had lined up a data- science postdoc, funded in part with a research grant and in part with a fellowship from a private research foundation. The latter has been put on indefinite hold. His postdoc sponsor is trying to fill the hole, but it will mean an employment delay to well beyond the summer. This likely means little or no research productivity over the next several months for a freshly minted STEM PhD at the threshold of his professional career.”

(4) Impact on Graduate, and Post-Graduate Training at Universities:

We have heard from many institutions that the shuttering of campuses has largely stopped research, both for graduate students who use this research to train for a degree, and for post- doctoral researchers who are just beginning their careers. As a result, doctoral proposal defenses, theses, and dissertation research are being postponed, which will delay time to graduation and completion of M.S. and Ph.D. degree requirements.

The interactions between professors and postdoctoral researchers have decreased, despite sincere efforts to communicate and continue the research remotely. Laboratory-driven postdoctoral research has slowed or completely stalled at many institutions. Delays to program deadlines, due to COVID19, requires them to stretch their existing grant support. This has the potential to slow early-career researchers in getting “off the ground,” which will have financial implications into the future, and could even affect the U.S. workforce.

Here is an example from a professor describing how graduate-level teaching has affected a significant space project:

“I was all set to begin the next phase of a deployable space mirror project, but now, not being able to get into the lab has brought the project to a halt. The potential entering Ph.D. program graduate student earmarked for the project backed out at the last minute because she was afraid she could not afford to come. She could not afford to come, because she lost her job due to Covid-19 that was paying for her undergraduate education. Thus, I no longer have a Ph.D. program graduate student to work on the project. A student in our Masters of Physics program who was counting on working on the project also could not start. Yet he has no scholarship, so this would have been his sole support outside his personal finances.”

(5) Impact on our Nation’s Research, Especially Space-Related Research at Universities:

Research progress has diminished significantly, due to lack of in-person interactions. Often, specialized equipment and resources are only available on site, which is currently inaccessible. I am told that that scientific papers will be lost, because of lockdowns of laboratories. I have also received reports indicating that fewer women are submitting journal manuscripts for review, compared to before the pandemic, and that grant proposals from women are also down.

Below is an example of research disruption from a faculty member at a USRA member university:

“The US has an impressive Solar and Planetary exploration program with missions to the Sun and Planets. There is Psyche, scheduled to visit an iron (or possibly platinum or other metal) asteroid, the Europa Clipper mission to the Jupiter system, and the ESCAPADE mission to Mars using ion propulsion. These bodies do not stop moving when the nation stops working, so we lose our launch opportunities. Thus, it is obvious that our solar system program has already been severely affected by the effects of COVID-19. We will not just have to extend funding to students but also the research groups and the launch and operations efforts that support them. These delays will be one to several years in length. NASA’s planetary program has already been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak and needs now to double its efforts to launch these important projects in which we have invested and on which we depend.”

Recommendations for Congressional Assistance:

Universities play an essential role in nearly all aspects of our innovation economy, from supporting basic research, to training the next generation of scientists and innovators, to collaborating with industry to move new knowledge out of the lab and into the marketplace. As I mentioned earlier, now more than ever partnership is needed between government and academia to ensure that the Nation has the next generation of space professionals to design and deploy the space systems of the future.

A reduction of American capacity in space science and engineering would also impede pursuits such as human space exploration, commercial ventures in space, and national security uses of space. Our national security requires space engineers who are capable of designing and constructing reliable space hardware of exquisite capability, and space scientists who understand in exquisite detail the space environment and the rigorous challenges of operating spacecraft in orbit.

There is a fear within the community that funding to science agencies may decrease, given federal spending associated with the pandemic. We need to reassure the community that we will return to the research paths we were on when the pandemic first arrived.

Please allow me to conclude with recommendations for Congressional support to help mitigate the impact of COVID19 on space-related research and education in the university community:

1. Provide an additional appropriation to NASA, to be utilized by the Science Mission Directorate, to provide augmentations to selected existing grants and contracts to universities.

Many universities made the decision to prioritize the safety of their community in March by transitioning to 100% online teaching and restricting campus access. This has put an enormous strain on graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, faculty, and the technical workforce, who cannot access specialized equipment and facilities to fulfill NASA contract and grant obligations. Students and postdoctoral researchers are among the most vulnerable in our community. Their financial security should be prioritized.

Even for tasks that can be completed remotely, efficiency has been greatly reduced. This situation is further exacerbated by delays in NASA’s ability to issue new funding opportunities and awards. The interruption to existing research, combined with the uncertainty of future research, results in an environment where universities risk delays in degree completion or attrition of graduate students, as well as the loss of a skilled technical workforce (at multiple levels) who rely on NASA grants and contracts.

To ensure the future viability of the technical workforce, it is necessary to provide additional funding to existing grants to allow graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to complete current research obligations. I recommend that upcoming stimulus considerations include $25 million in supplemental funding, to be utilized by NASA’s SMD, to allow funded extensions to existing grants and contracts, selected at the discretion of SMD.

Although this amount of supplemental funding to NASA’s SMD would be modest, relative to other stimulus considerations, it would go a long way in lessening one of the critical concerns of universities I have heard from faculty. This specific appropriation to NASA, for the purpose of contract and grant augmentation, would have a significant, positive impact on minimizing disruption to the U.S. space workforce development pipeline.

2. Extend maximum flexibilities to federal funding agencies to modify grants.

I also strongly recommend that Congress extend to NASA and other federal funding agencies maximum flexibility to extend deadlines and revise milestones set forth in existing grants and contracts to universities, without the normal administrative burden, which can be time- consuming. Funding agencies should be allowed to streamline approvals for modifications to grants. Cognizant Government technical monitors should be permitted to work directly with university investigators to determine what modifications may be helpful in alleviating the impact of COVID-19 on university grants and contracts. Such an indication from the Congress that funding agencies should use maximum flexibility would be very welcomed by the university space research community.

3. Increased investment to the NASA EPSCoR program.

Lastly, there is a concern that the COVID19 crisis will have the greatest proportional negative impact on research in states with the least current NASA funding. Likewise, the recovery curve for these states may be similarly affected. This may further deepen the disparate access and talent development resources present in such states. I recommend the Congress consider an increased investment in NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The EPSCoR program is directed at jurisdictions that have not in the past participated equably in competitive space-related research activities. Twenty- five states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam currently participate. Five federal agencies conduct EPSCoR programs, including NASA. Additional funding for NASA Research Infrastructure Development awards could be an effective and immediate way to mitigate the impact of COVID19 on space-related research in these states.

I thank you again for your leadership and for your longstanding support of space-related research and education at universities. I am available to answer questions from the Committee or be of any further assistance.