Prominent higher education leaders emphasize the importance of research in a crisis

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Prominent higher education leaders emphasize the importance of research in a crisis

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
During an Aspen Institute lecture, “The Future of Higher Education: How research universities are responding to COVID-19,” top leaders, including President Julio Frenk, discussed the critical role that higher education institutions play in society.

University of Miami President Julio Frenk discussed the opportunities and challenges for research universities amid a pandemic with Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, and Kristina M. Johnson, chancellor of the State University of New York System (SUNY), as part of a panel discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute on Thursday.

“I have no doubt that it is research that’s going to get us to the other side of this pandemic,” said Frenk. “We find ourselves at a moment when society is clamoring for the opinion of experts, and that’s what we concentrate on at universities. So, this is a moment where we need to rise and shine and illuminate the path forward.”

Frenk, a trained physician and global public health expert, had a unique viewpoint since the novel coronavirus pandemic represents his fifth pandemic during a leadership role. For the past few months, Frenk, in addition to his role as president, has served as interim chief executive officer of UHealth—University of Miami Health System during the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic in South Florida. In the past, Frenk served as dean of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and was minister of health in Mexico for six years. Napolitano, who oversees 10 campuses in the University of California system, is also the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a former governor of Arizona. Johnson, who oversees the 64 campuses of the SUNY, was under secretary of energy in the U.S. Department of Energy and before that served as provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at John Hopkins University.

All three discussed the challenges of preparing and overseeing academic medical centers amid an evolving pandemic, which has put the institutions in a difficult financial position because they were forced to cancel other medical procedures that help generate income.

“We did shut down some of our research labs during the pandemic. We now need to ramp that research back up,” Napolitano said. “We just need some help financially to get us there.”

However, the trio also stressed the important role that universities play in bringing experts together from a range of fields and advancing knowledge.

“If the United States is to continue to lead the world in innovation, that innovation starts somewhere. And generally, it starts in a university laboratory,” said Napolitano, also mentioning that the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley recently reengineered sleep apnea machines so that they could be used as respirators. “During the pandemic it’s been great to see the convergence of research on all issues of the virus—from modeling, to testing modalities, to development of new therapeutics and the basic science needed to have a vaccine.”

Frenk agreed, and touted ongoing research projects at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine to develop an RNA vaccine that could combat COVID-19, as well as new testing protocols and several clinical trials in process now to test whether certain drugs can help patients overcome the harmful effects of the disease. Johnson mentioned that SUNY’s Upstate Medical University is working on a way to test batches of samples for COVID-19; so that they can get results faster and with more accurate outcomes.

“One strength of universities is the ability to bring people together, focus on a problem that is important to society, and solve it,” Johnson said. “That type of convergent research is done really well at research institutions.”

Universities are also playing a critical role in the pandemic because they are providing the epidemiological modeling that U.S. government officials often cite in news conferences, Frenk pointed out.

“A lot of the projections you see are coming from universities,” Frenk said. “And in Miami, we are providing assistance for the county to do epidemiological surveys that will help identify the hot spots and measure the prevalence of the disease.”

Despite the budget shortfalls that all universities are experiencing, Napolitano and Johnson were hopeful about recent legislation in Congress that may help reinvigorate research funding put aside during the early months of COVID-19. Napolitano mentioned a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives—called the Rise Act—that would devote $26 billion to university research. And, Johnson also noted that a bipartisan group of senators recently introduced a bill called the Endless Frontier Act that would offer funding for a new sector of the National Science Foundation focused on technological research and innovation. Frenk said he was optimistic in learning about the two bills.

“This is a time when government needs to realize the importance of investing in science,” Frenk said. “I hope this accelerates the transition from silo research to interdisciplinary inquiry that brings all of the sciences together. Because, right now with the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, the social disruption that both have caused require the convergence of different disciplines.”