COVID-19 reaches far beyond human tragedy, with more than 100,000 deaths and over 2 million total cases in the U.S. Along with suffering grave personal health battles, tens of millions of Americans have filed unemployment claims since the virus forced the shutdown of large parts of the U.S. economy — a level not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s — erasing almost all of the U.S job gains of the past decade. And in this economic climate, with declining state revenues likely forcing budget cuts in many public sectors including higher education, the very universities that are a likely source for pandemic solutions may feel the impact of funding reduction.

During the University of Texas’ coronavirus research virtual meetups, I’ve glimpsed the full breadth of pandemic study taking place on my very own campus in Austin. Three biologists are developing a new type of laboratory test that could increase COVID-19 testing rates to up to 200,000 per day. A chemist is screening therapeutic compounds that might prevent coronavirus from entering cells; her colleague is focusing on how to distribute vaccines to remote areas. A mechanical engineer is working with software companies to develop customizable 3D printed face masks utilizing a smartphone app for facial scans. And researchers are evaluating the efficacy of various methods for disseminating evidence-based health advice.

This array of pioneering exploration is not unique to UT but exists at nearly all of the 1,600-plus public colleges in the United States, hubs for essential primary research.

State universities are America’s nerve centers for innovation, where concentrated expertise and hard work allow true progress in every conceivable industry. Are we as a society better off because we have a vaccine for polio? Thank the University of Pittsburgh. A machine that uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the body? Bravo, State University of New York. Pacemakers? Wireless local area networks? Kudos to the University of Minnesota and the University of Hawaii.

However, an ideological war for the future of America’s public universities is under way, centered on who foots the bill for their operation. Conservative reformers are pressuring lawmakers to reduce state funding and raise tuition, arguing that public universities should operate like businesses and view students as “consumers,” not future civic participants.

State funding for U.S public universities was reduced by a collective $9 billion between 2009 and 2019. During the 2017 school year, 44 states spent less per student than they had in 2008 after adjusting for inflation. And over the decade concluding in 2019, per-student funding in eight states fell 30 percent. At UT, the state of Texas provided just 11 percent of the university’s total budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year, down from 47% in 1984-85.

As a result of these huge cuts, tuition is on the rise, and student debt is ballooning. In 2019, 66% of all borrowers who graduated from public colleges had student loan debt totaling an average of $25,550 — 25% higher than in 2008.

Academic researchers and labs like mine have been feeling the squeeze, too, and devote significant resources to seek funding. Last year, three of our lead scientists devoted a collective 1,000 hours to developing funding-related ideas and proposals.

Americans know little about this trend. In fact, research shows most believe that state support of public universities has increased or remained steady over the past decade.

It has not.

While the budget crisis plays out in university board rooms and students are expected to bear ever-greater financial burdens, scientists — thankfully! — are continuing their work and answering the urgent call to search for potential COVID-19 solutions.

Now’s the time for state legislatures to make targeted investments to strengthen the work of scientists fighting this pandemic. Investing in the power of our public universities supports our nation’s security and future.

JANET WALKOW is a clinical professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Texas and executive director and chief technology officer of the Drug Dynamics Institute.

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