Biomedical research, like many other industries, has been hit hard by COVID. Within academia, the pandemic has led to numerous laboratories temporarily closing, career schedules being thrown off, and many non-COVID related clinical trials being delayed or halted. As scientists are working from home, women and researchers with young children are feeling the double-weight of full-time jobs and child care or educational responsibilities. For scientists of color, who already endure discrimination and lack of equal opportunity, the COVID-19 related shutdowns may further impact their ability to advance their careers.   

In September 2020, the Center for Strategic Philanthropy released a report, A New Imperative for Private Research Funders, which outlined the challenges the sector is facing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is promising news of an effective vaccine on the horizon, the sector will feel the ramifications of the pandemic for years to come.

While it is difficult to ascertain how much has been lost, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, projected around $10 billion in research losses due to COVID-19—and this is but one funding source. GuideStar estimates that nearly 20,000 nonprofit organizations are disease-focused, offering a unique value-add to specific research areas. For example, some organizations support particular initiatives to drive early-phase research to generate preliminary data, launch young investigators’ careers, or diversify therapeutic pipelines. Others employ and engage scientists in their management teams to ensure that funding drives meaningful and rigorous research forward.

Nonprofits also provide infrastructure for rare diseases that receive limited funding from the public sector. They provide about 5% of the overall U.S. research funding, but they are able to take more risks in what studies they support, allowing new scientific investigators to make a large impact. The nonprofit sector has experienced three major changes during this pandemic: decreases in fundraising, lost expert workforce, and lost flexibility in supporting research. As philanthropy considers its year-end giving strategies, this is an ideal time to ensure nonprofits have the resources to sustain themselves in the short-term and address the arising needs in the research field in the mid-term.

Decreases in Fundraising

Most organizations have seen their funding fall, but in the biomed sector, some nonprofits are projecting as much as 60% in revenue losses. Without major events like galas and charity walks to drive revenue, many nonprofits have had to decrease their budget accordingly for the foreseeable future. As of now, large donors may not be willing to make up the difference, as COVID-19 financing and self-preservation has taken priority. Because the health crisis affects individual donors and funding streams differently, nonprofit leaders expect that some organizations may not survive the economic downturn. Without these organizations in place, critical resources needed to support researchers, physicians, and most importantly, patients, will not be available moving forward. The rate of discovery of new information and treatments for patients, especially for those with rare conditions, will stagnate or stop. Philanthropists can step in here to ensure that specialized nonprofits have the financial resources they need to maintain themselves, at least until they are able to host fundraising events again.

Lost Expert Workforce

At foundations, program staff are often the heart of the organization, managing relationships across sectors and offering invaluable institutional knowledge of the field and research community. As the pandemic drags on, staff have been furloughed with the expectation of deeper cuts, leading to an irreplaceable loss of expertise and experience. If the nonprofit sector is to resume activities as efficiently as possible, these staff members need to be protected and their positions ensured. If the nonprofit is unable to retain them, their ability to host events, organize funding awards, and communicate with the community at-large will be severely impacted.

 Lost Flexibility in Supporting Research

As fundraising gaps grow, many organizations expect to cut back on research funding. One of the great aspects of biomedical nonprofits is their ability to support more high-risk studies. Those studies have a higher risk of failure, but also have incredible potential to provide a breakthrough for the scientific field in question. Due to decreased revenue, nonprofits may not be able to support these important studies, and will have to support ‘safer’ research for the foreseeable future. Supporting ‘safer’ studies may mean supporting more established researchers (who are often older and white) instead of young investigators, removing a crucial mechanism for newly minted investigators (who are increasingly diverse) to establish themselves. Additionally, this loss of flexibility will prevent nonprofits from working with scientific communities to construct and implement creative solutions to mitigate the setbacks brought on by the pandemic.

A Call to Action

Nonprofit organizations are key partners in disease-specific research. Support for the sector serves two critical needs: it ensures that short-term needs are met, all while ensuring the long-term sustainability of research for treatments and cures for diseases that millions endure every single day. A typical approach to year-end charitable giving is to put funds into DAFs. This is the year to re-think and reinvigorate, and consider giving directly to the sector.

To read more on funding science during a pandemic, see Giving Smarter in the Age of COVID-19: A New Imperative for Private Research Funders.