CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa shatters research funding records amid COVID-19

It's 'opened up new opportunities for discovery'

Stephanie Silva (left) of Iowa City has her temperature taken by Lynn Rhinehart (right), a guest services staff member,
Stephanie Silva (left) of Iowa City has her temperature taken by Lynn Rhinehart (right), a guest services staff member, at a March 13 virus screening checkpoint outside the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. The UI and UCLA has been awarded a $3.7 million grant to investigate best practices for keeping emergency room staff safe during a pandemic. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Although COVID-19’s emergence in Iowa stalled some of the groundbreaking research underway across the public universities, it propelled more pressing science directly tied to the pandemic — pushing the funding levels into record-setting territory.

The University of Iowa is reporting total external funding — grants, contracts and gifts, along with cooperative agreements with government entities, industry, foundations and other universities — at $666.2 million for the budget year that ended June 30.

That’s a 13 percent increase — or $77.4 million more — over fiscal 2019’s $588.7 million, which also set a record.

Looking only at funding supporting core research activities, the UI in the period amassed $535.5 million — up 15 percent from the $466.9 million in fiscal 2019.

“COVID-19-related studies are just one aspect of the important and cutting-edge research and scholarship that has attracted a record number of external funding dollars to Iowa in the past year,” according to the UI Office of the Vice President for Research.

Although officials attributed funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — or CARES Act — for a “large portion of the increase,” the university without it still would have reported higher research funding in fiscal 2020 than in any previous year on record.

“While the coronavirus pandemic has certainly interrupted on-campus research activities at the University of Iowa in general, it’s also opened up new opportunities for discovery,” UI Vice President for Research Marty Scholtz said in a statement. “Fortunately for Iowa, and for the world, we have many talented and dedicated faculty and staff capable of bringing fresh insight to this urgent and monumental challenge.”

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Iowa State University — another of Iowa’s major research engines — also in the 2020 budget year eclipsed fiscal 2019 in total external funding, although its research-specific external funding fell by nearly $8 million.

The Ames campus attracted $494.7 million in total external funding, marking a 5.5 percent boost over 2019 — although still below its highest-ever total of $509.2 million in 2018.

ISU’s external research-specific funding for the period was $253 million, down from $260.9 million in fiscal 2019. Still, ISU did highlight a record-setting $186 million in federal support for its research enterprise, topping 2019’s record $181.1 million in federal support.

A portion of that has supported research tied to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — including development of a paper-strip urine test for the virus and statistical modeling and prediction of deaths from the virus.

More significant contributors to ISU’s record-setting research support from the federal government were the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Funding from the USDA swelled from $23.6 million in 2019 to $47.8 million in 2020 thanks to five awards of more than $1 million each.

Much of the research endeavors across both of Iowa’s internationally-esteemed research institutions ground to a halt in the spring when COVID-19 infections began to accelerate and the public universities vacated their campuses.

Those working toward coronavirus-related discoveries persisted, though, and the universities recently began revving back up other research endeavors.

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In a statement, ISU Interim Vice President for Research Guru Rao called fiscal 2020 “a study in both perseverance and relevance.”

“Our research community as a whole, persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic — and continues to do so — to deliver relevant research that further builds on Iowa State’s legacy as a trusted and valued partner to both federal and non-federal sponsors alike,” Rao said.

UI research related to COVID-19 has been extensive — from testing treatments on coronavirus patients in a clinical setting to developing at-home spit tests and mouse models for other scientists researching health care and patient protections.

Funding for that work came toward the end of the budget year and included large and small grants — like for UI Executive Dean and Professor of Internal Medicine Pat Winokur, who landed funding from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE to study the effectiveness of messenger ribonucleic acid vaccines in potentially preventing COVID-19.

“Advances in molecular biology have provided many new insights into how we can create vaccines more quickly for novel viruses, and the RNA vaccines have been some of the first to be tested in humans,” Winokur said in a statement. “These RNA vaccines are easier to produce in large quantities so if the trials of this vaccine are successful, this will improve the timing for getting a vaccine into use.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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