‘Extraordinary Measures’

How institutions are approaching scientific research during COVID-19, and what they still need to know.

March 18, 2020
 
UC Riverside
William Grover's lab at UC Riverside

Move them online: colleges and universities have been giving professors clear guidance on what to do with their classes during COVID-19, if not quite how to do it. But the directives on what to do with scientific research and equipment-heavy lab work have been much less clear, leaving faculty members, students and some staff members scrambling to adapt to social distancing measures.

“I think there’s a lot of angst, unknowns and anxiety, given that these labs rely on people -- students, postdocs and research assistants,” said Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities. “What do you do in an environment where people are essentially being encouraged to stay home and telework?”

Seeking Guidance

Smith has spent this week collecting questions from colleges on scientific research and initial response measures in order to share them with the federal agencies from whom institutions are seeking further guidance. Concerns abound. Among them: Will graduate students working on federal grants still be paid if they can’t do the specific research they’re contracted to do? Will international students working outside their labs maintain their student status? Who will care for live lab animals? What about ongoing experiments involving cultures and other active or sensitive materials?

Some institutions and municipalities have ordered that labs be shut down. Others haven’t. Remarking that residents in California’s Bay Area have been ordered to not only socially distance themselves but to shelter in place, for example, Tobin asked, “What do you do there?”

The Association of Research Universities and Affiliated Medical Centers and the Independent Research Institutes’ Council on Government Relations also has been relaying questions and concerns to government agencies. The council has shared what it has learned so far on its website and in an FAQ sheet. The sheet includes “best assessment” guidance on costs associated with canceled travel plans, project timeline extensions and working from home.

On pay during remote work, in particular, the council said many institutions "develop business continuity plans to guide decision making in emergency situations. If employers ask employees to work remotely and if employees can work successfully in that environment, then their salary can continue to be paid on federally funded sponsored awards."

If an employee cannot successfully work from home -- if the nature of their duties requires them to work on-site, the council says, or they don't have home internet or access to a computer -- and "alternate duties that benefit the project" can't be identified, then a direct charge for that work to a grant award may not be appropriate.

Where research can’t be accessed and will be severely disrupted, the council expects federal agencies “will recognize the difficulties inherent in this situation and work with institutions to facilitate the conduct of the project.” Federal agencies should be notified of problems as soon as possible, the council said.

Leading the Charge

If the AAU and council are acting as official conduits between institutions and the federal agencies, then Johns Hopkins University has emerged as an unofficial conduit. The university was among the first to shut down all noncritical research, with an eye toward public health and ramping up research on the novel coronavirus. It has devoted $1 million in internal funds to this effort and already awarded $250,000 to Arturo Casadevall, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Hopkins. Casadevall last month posited in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that lessons from a 1934 measles outbreak, which led to a vaccine made from survivors’ blood, could prove helpful in transferring COVID-19 immunity to those at highest risk of infection.

Denis Wirtz, vice provost for research and Theophilus Halley Smoot Professor of Engineering Science at Hopkins, said, “We’ve come to realize we were maybe the first to pull the trigger” on scaling down nonessential research. In the interim, he said, Hopkins has been approached by other universities asking to use its COVID-19-related research protocol guidelines, which it willingly shared.

“I’m a firm believer that information like this should be available to everyone,” he said, remarking that on his campus, at least, there has been “remarkably little pushback from researchers, given that Hopkins is all about research and maximizing productivity and having students do the great work they do.”

In addition to having its own conversations with federal agencies -- which Wirtz called mostly encouraging -- Hopkins has developed phases or contingency plans for research involving animals and human subjects. Human subject research is at phase 2, meaning that no new participants should be enrolled in most cases and protocols concerning current participants should be paused where there is a low direct benefit to them. Animal research is at phase 3 starting today, meaning no new experiments. Skeleton crews have been named to perform only essential functions, such as caring for animals.

Leaving the Lab

William Grover, a professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Riverside, shut down his lab this week, based on a Riverside County public health order applying to all schools, colleges and universities. The university previously told instructors to move coursework online.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Grover said of his lab, as “moving our teaching online has taken most of my attention for the last few days.” In particular, he said, “we’re grappling with lab classes and whether students can perform at least some of the experiments away from the lab, using, for example, common household materials.”

As for research, Riverside is working to establish a protocol for limited, critical research activities that can’t be paused, Grover said. “The majority of us,” meanwhile, “will simply shut down our labs, which I fully support.”

Why? “It’ll force us to stay home and hopefully slow the spread of the virus.”

When he’s not teaching or figuring out how to accomplish that, Grover’s at-home work will involve tackling a backlog of reading and writing. He also admitted to “borrowing” a 3-D printer from work, which he’ll use to advance some of his soft robotics research.

While some of his colleagues have difficult issues to sort out, like maintaining animals and cultures, Grover said he’s noticed an “acceptance among my colleagues that, as hard as it is to put research on pause, slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus is the most important thing right now.”

Grover imagined that if the lab wasn’t closed, his hardworking graduate students might try to go in. But in some labs, grad students have reported being pressured by their supervisors to show up despite health guidance against doing so.

Victoria Tokarz, a Ph.D. candidate researching diabetes at the University of Toronto, said she’s thankful to have a principal investigator who scaled down lab operations last week and encouraged students to stay safe. Tokarz completed her last experiments on Friday and is working from home for the foreseeable future. But she criticized Toronto’s administration for not providing the kind of universitywide guidance on closing labs that could have protected those students with less understanding supervisors.

In some ways, Tokarz said, “this unprecedented, global health-care event has been an embarrassing illumination of the arrogance of the scientific community. The amount of researchers who continue to work -- and encourage their teams to work -- during a time when the government is advising that we all stay at home and social distance is reckless and irresponsible.”

Making the Call

There is “no single experiment or laboratory activity that is more important than saving the life of even a single individual in the community,” Tokarz added. And scientists should “follow the advice we are so fervently giving the public: stay home. Social distance, now. Wash your hands.”

While she’s limited in what she can do from there, due to lack of equipment, “the good news is doing a Ph.D. comes with a lot of desk work that we routinely put off or don't have time to do because we're so busy hands-on in the lab.”

The next few weeks will involve work such as writing literature reviews, maintaining and updating laboratory notebooks, organizing data and back-burnered data analysis, Tokarz said. She’ll also be teaching as an assistant in a now-online undergraduate course for 100 students.

On Monday, Toronto’s advice was that the “situation can change quickly so researchers need to prepare to delay, scale back or stop research activities. Public health authorities continue to advise that the risk in the Greater Toronto Area, which includes our three campuses, remains low.”

But on Tuesday, a Toronto spokesperson said via email that “in accordance with guidance from government officials, the university is advising that all lab-based research operations must be shut down no later than 5 p.m.” The university will consider exceptions for “critical COVID-19 research and time-sensitive critical projects, subject to approval and to the university's protocol for approval of critical or time-sensitive research.”

Those who are able to continue their research off-campus should continue “as long as it is safe to do so and should assign appropriate work to trainees and staff,” the spokesperson said.

Safety and Morale

Julie Pfeiffer, professor of microbiology at the University of Texas’s Southwestern Medical Center, shut down her lab late Tuesday. Most lab members have been working from home since Friday. She’ll have two people serving as essential personnel “to maintain critical items in the lab on a very part-time basis.”

Pfeiffer studies viruses, but not coronavirus, “so closing the lab was a very easy decision to make.” The campus, meanwhile, is closing to nonessential personnel today.

“People in the lab are disappointed about shutting down their experiments, but they understand that this is a critical step,” she said. The first and second items on the lab plan Pfeiffer shared with her students are safety (it says STAY HOME in capital letters) and morale. Pfeiffer's expectations are that students work at least five to six hours a day, meeting regularly via Zoom, making high-quality figures for publications, reading, writing papers, analyzing data and learning the statistical programming language R and bioinformatics.

Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said this week that research institutions “need to shut down all functions except for clinical care, research on the virus and public health communication.”

To support these “vital operations,” Thorp wrote in his editorial, called “Time to Pull Together,” institutions need to provide childcare for scientists and staff members whose children are home from school. Institutions also need to alleviate researchers’ concerns “by extending tenure clocks, guaranteeing status in graduate school and extending postdoctoral contracts.”

As for scientists who are not working on the virus, “we know well that other major problems still exist, such as climate change, inequality and other diseases,” Thorp said. And while it is “understandably very difficult to pause research in other arenas for an indefinite amount of time,” the “crisis is calling for extraordinary measures, and your supportive responses deserve recognition.”

Working from home, Thorp urged, “will make it safer for those who must be in buildings and laboratories to do work related to the virus -- fewer people in the hallways, lunchrooms and other public areas will slow the spread of the virus so that work on COVID-19 can continue.”

On “so many fronts,” Thorp said, “this is a battle of a lifetime and a test of our responsibilities for each other and the strength of our compassion.”

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