Despite employees being encouraged to work remotely and most University of Wyoming buildings now closed to public access, research by faculty and students continues on campus.
During Thursday’s meeting of the board of trustees, board chairman Dave True said he assumed the COVID-19 epidemic has “ruined” some of university’s research.
Ed Synakowski, UW’s vice president of research and economic development, said there’s no indication so far that’s the case.
“To be sure, scopes of work are being adjusted,” Synakowski told the trustees. “I’m cautiously optimistic that, while there will be impacts in terms of timeline-stretching, that research isn’t grinding to a halt, but that is definitely a concern.”
If COVID-19 does hinder timely completion of a grant-funded project, Synakowski said the federal government “is working very hard to accommodate” impacts on research milestones.
Synakowski told the Boomerang that some lab researchers might focus more on out-of-lab work in the coming weeks.
“There is always work outside of the laboratory that a researcher needs to do to support their work in the lab such as writing and data analysis so we anticipate that all researchers encompassing faculty, staff and students will be able to work remotely to some extent,” he said. “Work scope adjustments may include doing such out-of-lab work now rather than later.”
He said that “virtually all of our researchers,” including graduate assistants, will be able to continue to work remotely.
Undergraduates doing work-study research can also continue working in labs on campus.
However, the university has also told researchers to “identify experiments that can be ramped down, curtailed or delayed” and make plans for the possibility that UW might restrict access to UW labs.
Researches have been told to “prepare for limited access” by designating emergency personnel that would still be allowed in for critical maintenance, like care of research animals.
If further restrictions to research were to be implemented, Synakowski said that decision would be made by UW’s emergency response team, which includes Acting President Neil Theobald and the board of trustees.
“If the university adopts a stricter operating stance in response to evolving conditions, then research activities may need to adjust,” Synakowski told the Boomerang. “We are not curtailing research; rather, we are adjusting our practices to ensure that research can be conducted safely.”
He said the university labs are following the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control regarding workplace social distancing and “enhanced laboratory hygiene practices.”
However, some departments and principal investigators have already enacted even stricter rules for their labs during the COVID-19 outbreak.
For example, the Department of Pharmaceutical Science now only allows a lab’s principal investigator and one other person associated with the lab to be in the building at the same time.
If UW were to order a complete shutdown, the Department of Pharmaceutical Science’s COVID-19 directive indicated its animal population would be shrunk significantly.
“Please identify 20% of the animal population that you would be allowed to persists,” the directive states.
However, Synakowski told the Boomerang said there are no plans to euthanize any animals as the result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Experts critical to maintaining animal health during any slowdown are on hand and these individuals will continue to serve in this capacity to protect animal health and welfare,” he said.
If more restrictions were need to be made with UW’s research, Synakowski said that “every effort would be made to minimize research impacts.”
“In that case, though, highest priority research activities would be ensuring that animal health is maintained, along with health of plant species, viability of cell lines and tissue samples, and so forth,” he said.
UW has at least 100 lab and field-based research activities being conducted by UW faculty, staff and students.
Synakowski said that several involve animals, but “the precise number of laboratories is not possible to quantify owing to the wide range of research and the many different research modalities.”
While research continues, Synakowski said that no one should be expected to continue in-lab work if they don’t feel comfortable with that.
“We need to respect the concerns of the researcher,” Synakowski said “If there are adjustments that are made … and still the researcher is not comfortable with the arrangement, deference must be given to the researcher here. … No one is going to be compelled to do work that they’re not comfortable doing.”