Reopening University Research

Brian Herman and Claudia Neuhauser

A little over a month ago, Universities across the world rapidly ramped down their research as Stay Home orders became a reality. Some did so within less than 24 hours. Labs were shut. Staff were sent home. Labs that had Continuity of Operation plans in place were better prepared to shut down. Most universities allowed only essential staff in labs to perform procedures necessary to maintain critical research infrastructure (e.g. feeding lab animals, maintaining cell cultures, ensuring that critical equipment would remain safe) as well as allowing research that if paused could harm research subjects .

Most universities quickly developed processes for researchers to request exemptions to Stay Home orders to allow for critical research, such as finding a vaccine or cure, to continue. But very few researchers fall under such exemptions. For the vast majority of researchers, shutting down their lab for weeks has been devastating. And it is not just labs. Research in the arts and humanities relies heavily on archives, artefacts, libraries, and studio access. It is thus no wonder that after weeks of staying at home, university leadership feel the pressure to open the campus for research again. For most universities, research will be the first to come back on campus.

Any approach to opening the research enterprise should be focused on protecting faculty, students and staff engaged in research activities. Here are some suggestions on what to think about as universities reopen their research laboratories.

Researchers will return on campus while COVID-19 infections are still going on in their communities and the opening up of university research activities needs to follow any current local Stay Home orders.

Research that can be done remotely should continue to do so. Similarly, all lab meetings should continue to be held remotely (online). No one should come on campus who has any of the symptoms that are associated with COVID-19 or knows that they have been in contact with someone during the past two weeks who is lab-confirmed to have an active case of COVID-19. Taking one’s temperature prior to coming to work is a must and staying at home if the temperature exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit should be an obvious rule.

To reduce the risk of becoming a hotspot for an outbreak, university leaders need to slow the return of researchers and implement rules to minimize the number of contacts each individual has on campus. A staged approach is best and maintaining social distancing is an absolute must.  

When coming to campus is necessary, lab members need to develop a work schedule that minimizes the number of different contacts each of the members has with others, for instance, through a staggered work schedule where lab members do not rotate among shifts. Everyone should keep a list of who they are in contact with to facilitate contact tracing if a lab member becomes infected with the coronavirus.

Reducing the density of lab members can become a safety issue when lab members who previously worked in teams are asked to work by themselves. To reduce the risk, anyone working alone in a lab environment should inform another lab member at the beginning and end of the shift, and if the call at the end of the shift doesn’t come, a plan should be in place of who to call next (after checking whether the person simply forgot to call or lost time and is still working in the lab).

Labs are often not very large and sharing the same enclosed space for hours increases the risk. Requiring the wearing of masks, frequent hand washing with soap, practicing social distancing, and reducing the density of lab members by not having all lab members be present at the same time should be a must for everyone. The same goes for disinfecting equipment and devices, lab benches, doorknobs, other frequently touched surfaces. Microwaves, water coolers, and other equipment that is shared during breaks need to be disinfected as well in between usage.

University leadership needs to be clear who is responsible to procure masks, gloves, and other protective equipment, in addition to hand sanitizers and other disinfectant cleaning materials. Considering the immense logistic issue of procuring these for an entire campus for months to come, this responsibility might be best left to each individual PI. If the PI cannot procure protective equipment or disinfectants at a quantity that is sufficient to conduct research, they should not be allowed back on campus.

Core facilities may be particularly vulnerable to become a source of infections as staff in core facilities may find themselves interacting with a large number of other individuals who may change daily. If interactions are not necessary, they should be avoided. Consultations can often be done online and if interpersonal interactions are required, all current protective strategies should continue to be employed.

Human subject research requires special attention. Whether or not a University allows human subject research where subjects come on campus or are met by investigators off campus and what kind of interactions are allowed needs to be clearly articulated. It might be OK to bring someone on campus as long as the person is not a minor or belongs to a vulnerable population but holding focus groups may be too early.

Finally, a communication plan must be in place so that everyone who needs to know knows who is on campus. Departments and colleges need to know to control the overall density in their research spaces. Each university has a department responsible for Health & Safety. They need to know who is coming on campus to provide the necessary level of support, especially if they only maintained a skeleton crew on campus while the campus was closed.

Random checks by institutional officials might be in order to make sure that labs follow the rules.

We recommend that every PI is required to complete a simple form where they list everyone from their group who is planning to be on campus and which rooms they plan to use. The form should include a certification step to indicate that the PI and other lab members who plan to be on campus read the guidelines and rules and will abide by them. Depending on the type of research, they may need to contact the Department for Environmental Health and Safety as well. The form needs to be routed to the Department Chair, Dean, VP for Research and Provost for approval to make sure the plans comply with institutional requirements for conducting research under these conditions.

Lastly, not everyone will feel comfortable to return and to share lab space with others. Lack of childcare or living with others who are vulnerable adds to the discomfort of returning or may make it just not feasible. University leaders need to clearly articulate that it is the University’s priority to not only keep people safe but also making it clear to everyone that nobody should be compelled to return to campus while restrictions are still in place, regardless of the reasons. It is easy for PIs who are too eager to return to put undue pressure, knowingly or not, on lab members, in particular graduate students, who may fear that refusal to come on campus will have negative consequences for their future. Being clear that coercion is not tolerated and that individuals can file confidential reports using the standard processes if they still feel uncomfortable after talking with their supervisor can go a long way to make everyone feel comfortable voicing their unease about coming to campus, for whatever reasons.  A statement to this effect could be added to the form that the PI has to fill out to gain approval to reopen the laboratory and thus certify that they made their lab members aware of the hotline to file a confidential report.

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