5 coronavirus questions university research leaders should consider

Expert Insight

5 coronavirus questions university research leaders should consider

As the coronavirus crisis deepens its impact on higher education, leaders must tackle unprecedented questions daily. Research leaders in particular must consider the immediate and mid-term implications the coronavirus might have for the research enterprise. Here are the five most pressing questions facing senior research officers and their teams.

1. How would a coronavirus-related full campus closure disrupt faculty research and what would the impact be?

At the beginning of the week, this was an abstract question for many schools; fast forward even just a few days and most campuses have ramped down most if not all on-campus research activity. This entails limiting active on-campus research only to topics directly related to combating COVID-19.

Other research is being scaled down to the minimum necessary level, making labs available only to identified essential personnel working on projects that require continued maintenance, such as animal care or shared computing equipment. In most of these instances, campuses are no longer allowing undergraduate researchers or external visitors in labs and are severely limiting (with the intent of discontinuing) graduate student and postdoc access as well.

Although these steps may address the immediate questions, there remain open inquiries about mid- to long-term campus closures and how long essential personnel will be permitted to access labs. Whether your campus is still considering a full closedown or managing the day-to-day of one, there are some good universal steps that research teams can take now to best prepare:

  • Establish (or update) a list of essential personnel for each research project
  • Help research teams create a communications plan that includes who is responsible for what work while everyone is away from campus
  • Determine which ongoing experiments are deemed “mission critical” and for how long each experiment could persist with minimal in-person supervision
  • Identify faculty and staff that are (or can be) cross-trained to support multiple ongoing projects wherever possible

The University of Washington’s resource page on Mitigating Impacts to Research Activities Due to COVID-19 provides useful examples of the above guidance.

Open questions:

What federal support will be provided for experiments that were disrupted or discontinued during campus research shutdowns?

What is the best way to re-open labs when the time comes?

2. How can the research office support graduate and doctoral students, postdocs, and research assistants during this disruption?

Although federal guidance is changing by the hour, the agencies overall are committed to continuing to pay graduate students, postdocs, and research staff through their current awards. This includes work completed remotely. See the Council on Government Relations (COGR) resource page for updates from federal agencies as they become available.

With that in mind, Principal Investigators (PIs) and research project leaders should be identifying what functions can be easily conducted remotely and assigning this work accordingly. Examples of such activities include literature reviews and light data analysis. This work can be extended to undergraduate researchers as well, and ongoing project plans should include the continued engagement of as many participants for as long as possible.

Open questions:

How will we support these students whose projects are halted outright during the shutdown? (Some early guidance can be found in the Office of Management and Budget’s letter from March 9.)

What will the impact of a long-term shutdown be on our graduate and doctoral student pipeline?

3. What research administration functions are continuing amidst the coronavirus crisis?

In short, most universities are aiming to provide as close to full service as possible. This includes continuing to receive, review, and submit proposals electronically. Research leaders anticipate that federal agencies will adjust their deadlines and ease their late submission rules, but there is still an underlying expectation that proposals will continue to be submitted as close to deadlines as possible. On the post-award side, federal agencies have expressed greater leniency on delayed progress reports but reiterate that reports should be submitted as soon as reasonably possible.

Many universities have adopted virtual meetings for Institutional Review Board (IRB) and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee so processes continue largely unimpeded. However, most in-person human subjects research is being postponed or canceled, with a few exceptions. Johns Hopkins University has provided strong guidance on which tiers of human subjects research can continue based on the severity of disruption to research.

Open questions:

How can we continue to provide the highest quality administrative support to faculty through online mediums?

What kind of federal backlog should we anticipate in terms of reviewing proposals and distributing current funding?

4. How do I keep faculty engaged and supported in their research if they are away from campus for more than a few weeks?

It’s important to remember the toll the coronavirus can take on faculty—not just because of the sudden shift in their daily work, but because of the personal, medical, financial, and psychosocial consequences the crisis can cause. As you’re communicating about the challenges described above, make sure faculty are also aware of existing resources related to childcare, counseling, health, and coping.

As the disruption continues into the coming weeks, consider circling back with faculty and providing/re-upping resources on what grant opportunities remain open and how faculty can use their time at home to prepare for their next proposal. This is especially timely for researchers whose expertise and interest are related to COVID-19 research needs—Johns Hopkins University’s Office of the Vice Provost for Research maintains a publicly available listing of these opportunities.

Open questions:

How can summer workloads be adjusted to provide faculty the needed flexibility to catch up on missed lab time?

What additional resources can the research office offer to keep engagement and morale up if the shutdown persists for longer than originally expected?

5. What impact will coronavirus-related disruptions have on federal research funding?

This remains a big open question for many research leaders. On the surface, a disruption like this is in some ways easier for the research enterprise to manage than a full-scale federal government shutdown, but it’s realistic to assume some of the current federal operations could slow or cease altogether as this crisis continues. Such a slow down could impact award review times, funding distribution, and procurement approvals.

How could short-term stimulus funding today impact mid-term discretionary spending in the coming years?

As the White House and Congress debate the appropriate level of stimulus to re-energize the economy, a looming question remains about how short-term stimulus funding today could impact mid-term discretionary spending in the coming years. With the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) as our most recent example, a good portion of funds were made available for university research over a three-year period that boosted our short-term expenditures. But, institutions then experienced lower-than-expected increases in agency budgets in the following years.

An initial stimulus package is likely to include more cash transfers and loans than direct grant funding like the ARRA, but subsequent debates regarding a similar “bailout” for universities could support more direct research funding. Even so, many research leaders remain skeptical, with some arguing that any stimulus funding allocated right now would adversely impact discretionary funding in the coming years.