Biden's National Science Foundation Spent Millions in Emergency COVID Funds Last Year. The Spending Had Nothing To Do With COVID.

One grant went to a college in Massachusetts to study how floodplains respond to climate change

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
March 11, 2024

Since January 2023, President Joe Biden's National Science Foundation (NSF) has spent millions of dollars on grants funded by the American Rescue Plan, Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus package. The grants have nothing to do with COVID, but they do fund studies on climate change.

The American Rescue Plan, which Biden said would bring "direct relief to families bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis," sent $600 million to the NSF. The agency pledged to use the funding to "support groups of individuals and institutions most strongly affected by the pandemic." Three years after Biden signed the legislation, that money is still going out the door—through research grants that aren't COVID-related.

One July 2023 grant, for example, funded a $246,000 Amherst College study meant to "deepen our understanding of how floodplains have responded to … climatic changes." A more than $7 million grant awarded one month earlier to the University of Texas at Austin will help develop "a learning environment that is welcoming to marginalized and minoritized researchers." The NSF sent another $181,000 to California Polytechnic State University in December to investigate "the structural organization, and changes therein, of a school of fish."

In total, the agency has awarded more than $23 million in American Rescue Plan grants since January 2023 that are unrelated to COVID, federal spending disclosures show.

The revelation undermines congressional Democrats' defense of the spending package, which economists say helped drive inflation to a nearly 40-year high. While Republicans panned the bill as wasteful, arguing that it was not needed to boost the U.S. economy, Democrats touted it as a "lifeline" to struggling Americans.

"This comprehensive COVID relief bill, which President Biden unveiled on his first day in office, includes vital provisions that will help working families get back on their feet and steady the economy," Ohio Democratic congresswoman Marcy Kaptur said in March 2021.

"Working people in the heartland have waited months for an economic lifeline and I'm glad to see that thanks to President Biden's leadership, they are going to get the economic assistance they voted for."

In many cases, however, the funding went to obscure projects that were not tied to the pandemic. In others, recipients of American Rescue Plan funds struggled to spend them in a timely manner.

In the year after the bill's passage, American schools spent just 7 percent of the $122 billion in federal aid the plan allocated to them. Many U.S. districts, meanwhile, spent the funds on bonuses for teachers and administrators.

The American Rescue Plan's $2 trillion price tag also contributed to inflation, according to economists. While Biden last year dismissed the notion that his stimulus spending boosted prices as "bizarre," his own administration concluded in its annual "Economic Report of the President" that such spending "could have contributed to high inflation."

Other economists were more pointed, with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco saying the American Rescue Plan contributed significantly to inflation. In October 2022, then-House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.) said congressional Democrats knew the spending would lead to increased inflation all along.

"Let me make it very clear. All of us are concerned about these rising costs, and all of us knew this would be the case when we put in place this recovery program," Clyburn said on MSNBC. "Any time you put more money into the economy, prices tend to rise."

In addition to the Amherst College grant, the NSF sent $219,000 to Radford University in October to study oyster reef erosion.

"This award is funded in whole or in part under the American Rescue Plan of 2021," the Radford grant disclosure states. "Oyster reefs … have suffered major losses due to declining water quality, overharvesting, and diseases. … To better understand and protect these ecosystems, this project focuses on understanding the breakdown (erosion) processes that are occurring in areas where oysters are found."

Neither the White House nor the NSF responded to requests for comment.