Research enterprise update from the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education (March 31, 2020)
These are challenging times for all of us and our families. We need to continue to plan together about how best to carry out research activities while protecting our staff and students and slowing the spread of COVID-19.
To help us navigate through these uncharted waters together, I want to give a summary of actions being taken to continue the research enterprise, provide examples of how people across campus have engaged in addressing this pandemic, and look to the future.
We are a research university. The research enterprise across campus is very diverse. Many research projects can and are operating remotely, at least for a limited time. These activities include data simulations, data analyses, scholarly writing, and literature reviews. To protect the safety of our community and our shared resources, we must reduce work on campus to the lowest possible level. The OVCRGE provided a policy that identifies the kinds of critical research that can continue on campus. This includes research that has the potential to address the COVID-19 crisis (please see our new webpage with UW–Madison COVID-19 related research news: https://research.wisc.edu/uw-madison-research-community-responds-to-covid-19/); therapeutic human subjects studies involving drugs or devices, or other human subjects research activities that are critical to the health and safety of patients or study participants; and projects where termination of the research would lead to loss of long-running experimental data, critical time-series or time-sensitive data, loss of equipment, or the loss of life of critical research-related organisms. Any plans for on-site research must comply with campus and external guidelines and be an approved activity.
In addition to the above criteria, on-site research must be able to follow required safety standards and have personnel available and willing to carry out the work. No person – faculty, staff, postdocs, or students – should be forced to work on campus during this time.
Remember that ongoing research activities impact other units on campus – animal care staff, biosafety staff, custodial staff, and PPE needs. We cannot ignore the risk that if someone with access to auilding tests positive, there may be serious consequences: closing large parts of a building, loss of staff (not just in their lab, but staff in animal care and custodial staff) due to potential quarantines, as well as the cost of cleaning.
In a time of so much uncertainty, I want to reassure you that the OVCRGE team is working remotely and is fully engaged in the research enterprise. For those of you moving forward with faculty hiring, we are engaged in conversations about start-up needs. We are supporting matching grant funding for proposals that meet OVCRGE requirements. Currently, we are reviewing UW2020 grant proposals, which will support multi-investigator cutting-edge science, and reviewing proposals that will support and build our research infrastructure. We are also considering nominations for faculty fellowships and named professorships, a process that makes vivid the substantial contributions to knowledge of all kinds made by our faculty. These initiatives are vital for sustaining, restoring, and building our various research missions across campus in the coming months and years.
RSP is fully functional and submitting grants. They also are maintaining a website to provide up-to-date information on agency policies. The Office of Management and Budget issued new flexibilities to federal agencies on March 19. Funding agencies are starting to announce policies that align with the OMB guidance. Visit the RSP web page to stay up to date on changing policies (https://rsp.wisc.edu/COVID.cfm).
I want to acknowledge that new collaborations are occurring across campus and between campus, Madison industries, and research institutions throughout the USA to address the COVID-19 crisis.
- Biosafety cabinets in SMPH were identified and made available to private industry sites to support increased COVID-19 testing.
- Engineers in the College of Engineering are working with Madison-area manufacturers, the design consulting firm Delve, and campus colleagues on a product to help meet the urgent and growing demand for medical face shields.
- The Data Science Institute has gathered over two dozen individuals from UW Health, data science, epidemiology, City of Madison, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, University of Chicago and others from across the country to use recent data to study modeling strategies for delivering health care during the COVID-19 crisis.
- New experiments are being launched in multiple campus labs to map how the virus binds to human cells to help identify novel anti-viral drugs. SARS-CoV-2 samples from our labs are being shipped to research institutions around the country to aid their research. Specialized microscopes that can reveal the atomic structure of the virus are being built via a university and industry partnership.
These are a few examples of these collaborative activities. I’m sure there are more and if you have examples, please send them to me as good news is very welcome.
Graduate students play a key role in our instructional and research missions. All graduate students conducting research for their thesis or dissertation, or as part of a research assistantship, should continue their research activities remotely. Any on-campus research must be approved. We are acutely aware that some research plans, such as field programs, wet-lab research, and international data collection, are adversely affected by these policies. Academic requirements and guidelines are being approached with some flexibility during this disease outbreak. The Dean of the Graduate School has set up a FAQ web-site that addresses graduate student issues (https://covid19.wisc.edu/graduate-students/).
No one can predict exactly how the course of events will unfold in the weeks and months ahead, but I am encouraged by the tremendous cooperation we have already seen.
- Everyone should continue to follow guidance from the campus leadership, CDC, and state and local government officials, about strategies to limit disease spread.
- Research that is being accomplished remotely should continue to be done that way, until further notice, with access to campus only in the case of extenuating circumstances (e.g., a server or computer used in the research needs rebooting, or action is needed to sustain a critical research-related infrastructure or unique living organisms).
- As more restrictions are put in place to ensure campus and public safety, we may need to consider new actions to ensure the safe maintenance of vital research across our campus. New restrictions may require further narrowing of defined critical research infrastructure that must remain functional.
Research is a core institutional activity and I appreciate the potential consequences of this epidemic for our research enterprise. I know that progress on funded research may slow and, in some cases, even stop, due to a lack of access to facilities and labs. Our OVCRGE team is pivoting from ramping down on-site research to addressing how we can mitigate the negative impacts of this pause in activity and planning for a way forward. We will move through this challenging situation by working together.
As we work through this unprecedented situation, please keep yourselves and your families safe.
Steven A. Ackerman
Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education
Professor, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences