Research universities can help solve the coronavirus crisis

With our world redefined by the coronavirus, the nation must renew its commitment to exploration and discovery and to the partnership that truly made America great.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst
The University of Massachusetts AmherstBlake Nissen for the Boston Globe

During moments of greatest national distress, enlightened policy makers have recognized the essential role higher education can play in solving daunting problems and charting a course to a brighter and more secure future.

In the midst of the Civil War, Congress passed the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant College Act, the bill responsible for the founding of many of today’s major public research universities, UMass Amherst included.

Seeking support for his bill, Representative Justin Morrill of Vermont said a nation that had built military academies had an obligation to create “schools to teach men the way to feed, clothe and enlighten the great brotherhood of man.”


The federal government also formed a partnership during World War II with the nation’s research universities that resulted in the development of life-saving medications like penicillin, vital radar systems and, ultimately, the weapon that ended the war: the atomic bomb.

The partnership became more explicit after the war with the creation of a merit-based, competitive system that provided researchers with the funding they needed to explore and discover, via grants from agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. This collaboration helped to send astronauts to the moon, brought us the polio and flu vaccines — and countless other medical breakthroughs — and made computers, GPS technology, and seat belts part of our everyday lives.

Assessing this partnership as a university president, but also viewing it from the perspective of a former member of Congress who understands the importance of investing tax dollars wisely, it’s clear to me that the federal government’s faith in research universities has been rewarded time and again.

Now, as the nation is engaged in the battle against COVID-19, it should reinvigorate this partnership.

Already we see the significant role that colleges and universities — research universities in particular — are playing in the fight against the coronavirus, figuring prominently in the efforts to develop vaccines, treatments, and tests.


At the UMass system, faculty researchers are working on potential treatments and on better and faster coronavirus tests. The Influenza Forecasting Center of Excellence, based at our flagship campus in Amherst, has been providing impact projections since the pandemic began and has emerged as a trusted source of information. Additionally, our researchers have demonstrated safe ways to reuse protective masks, examined the impact the pandemic has had on home-care aides and immigrants, and provided advice on easing children’s fears during this unsettling time.

Coast to coast, 260-plus research universities are hard at work. But with research universities facing significant financial challenges and scrambling to meet the needs of students during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s not clear that policy makers fully appreciate the risk to our institutions.

Although research universities are among the best-known institutions in the nation and world — Harvard, MIT, and the UMass system have the three largest research portfolios in this state — no university is immune to the financial challenges the pandemic is leaving in its wake.

While private universities figure prominently on the list, public universities dominate the ranks, which means that many major research universities are coping with COVID-related financial losses and significant state budget cuts — coming on top of recent years of flat federal funding for research.

A 2015 report released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Lincoln Project estimated that public research universities alone were responsible for 40 percent of all degrees awarded in the United States and 60 percent of the doctorates.


For decades, our nation soared because of research universities that have explored such challenges as the inner workings of human genes and the boundaries of distant galaxies. With our world suddenly disrupted, with so many suffering, and with so much at risk, the nation must renew its commitment to exploration and discovery — and to the partnership that truly made America great.

Marty Meehan is president of the five-campus University of Massachusetts system.