Research Continuity Frequently Asked Questions

(Updated April 20, 2020) On April 7, following up on input from Georgia Tech and other institutions, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the American Council on Education sent a letter to Congress to request an additional $26 billion and flexibility in research regulations. Below is a set of FAQs resourced in part from that letter.                                                               

Short-Term requests:

How will funds be added to sustain research and maintain the national research infrastructure? Given the huge positive economic impact of research for society through new knowledge creation, direct spending, workforce development, and innovation, university research should receive focused consideration. Such consideration should include both public and private institutions, and support for both individual investigators and institutional infrastructure such as core facilities. Funds should be added across all federal agencies supporting research.

Will my PPEs be replaced? Universities have made significant financial contributions both in terms of donating equipment and PPE, and also in making space and facilities available. This should be recognized, perhaps through some sort of credit or other compensation.

What about International Students & Researchers? Visa and immigration rules will need some flexibility and consideration, otherwise the U.S. will lose a large number of talented STEM workers who normally arrive and stay in the U.S. through graduate programs. Agencies responsible for these visas may need additional resources to allow for the pent-up demand, and flexibility in requirements may require legislative action.

What about Corporate-sponsored research? Corporate-sponsored research is important to universities, both for the influx of support and for the intellectual connection to applied problems of relevance to industry. In light of the economic damage to corporations, industrial research funding to universities may be diminished, and could be encouraged by new R&D tax credits and other incentives. Some companies have also cancelled internships. At Georgia Tech, we have some internship opportunities and those are found at: C2D2.

Long-Term Requests:

Addressing the slow-down in research. Research efforts have been broadly impacted by the requirement for social distancing. While some groups can engage in data analysis or computational studies, many others are limited in their ability to make progress by lack of lab access or engagement in the field. This limitation is particularly acute for trainees in wet lab research, where density is the norm, and in fields where there is direct interaction with human subjects. Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are delayed in their career progress, goals for grants are becoming infeasible, and significant costs are being accrued in salaries, idled equipment, and research studies that are stopped and will need to be re-started. In brief, during the slow-down, academia’s research mission has been impaired, with significant financial costs and some of the greatest burdens falling on early-career researchers.

Responding to non-uniformity among federal grant sponsors. The guidance from OMB to federal agencies for administering grant funding in the current situation has been very helpful. One concern, however, is that federal funding agencies are not taking a uniform approach in following the OMB guidance. Variations among agencies, as documented by COGR, are causing administrative difficulty and inefficiency.

Meeting federal research contract deliverables. Federal research contracts have deliverables that may not be achievable under the current circumstances. Federal agencies appear to be adopting a case-by-case approach to contracts, in contrast to the broad OMB guidance for grants. Renegotiating these agreements will add a significant burden to both administrative staff and researchers.

Working with non-federal sponsors. The university research enterprise includes many research efforts funded by state governments, private foundations, and corporate partners. Grants and contracts from these sources are being administered differently by each sponsor, which is a significant burden on administrative staff and researchers. Funding from all of these sources is currently at risk, and cuts have occurred. Universities are also faced with questions regarding how to support employees paid from these sources when they are unable to work on the projects to which their full or partial effort is contractually tied.

Addressing visa issues. Due to the closures of consulates and other logistical problems, visa issues for foreign Ph.D. students, postdocs, and others are building and more issues are expected in the coming year. These foreign researchers form a critical component of the research enterprise, and they represent a significant fraction of the pipeline for the future STEM workforce.

Allowing access for essential workers. State and local guidelines for increased social distancing may not recognize some research staff (e.g., for those who care for lab animals, rare plants, and cell lines) as essential. Universities may not have clear channels to authorities in local and state government who are setting rules, or to those who can handle appeals.

Funding the restart of research. Additional funding in the form of supplements for restarting research (e.g., recreating the necessary cell, plant, or animal lines) will be important, both for institutions and for individual PI’s, but agencies do not yet have additional funds to devote to this purpose without harming other research programs or future funding of new programs. Funds to address lost productivity during the slow-down will also be needed for many programs to meet their original goals.

Planning for revival. Institutions should start planning for ramp-up of research as the pandemic subsides. Questions include: Which research gets started with highest priority, how is the restart staged, and at what point in time should it be initiated? How will labs be restocked with supplies, especially PPE and other materials that were needed for healthcare during the pandemic? How will researchers include support for ramp-up activity within grant proposals and funding for current grants, or will universities

Additional guidance regarding Georgia Tech's Research Continuity Plan (March 15, 2020) and the Executive Vice President for Research Letter on Research Ramp Down (March 17, 2020): 

Defining Essential Activities

The letter limits campus research to essential activities. What are essential activities? Essential activities include the following:
•    Activity that if discontinued would generate significant data and sample loss
•    Activity that if discontinued would pose a safety hazard
•    Activity that maintains critical equipment in facilities and laboratories
•    Activity that maintains critical samples and animal populations
•    COVID-19 related activity that has a timeline for deployment that could address the current crisis
•    Activity that has US government-mandated security and access requirements, cannot be performed remotely, and whose activity is deemed critical by the US government
•    Activities specifically requested by a US Government sponsor to continue during this time
•    Clinical trial activity that if discontinued would negatively impact the patient's care
•    Activity necessary for delivery of remote instruction

Activity related to critical infrastructure, facilities, samples and organisms should be ramped down to the extent possible (e.g. concluding current experiments, freezing intermediary samples, etc.)

Will I still have access to my building? Will I be locked out? There are no plans at this time to lock down. Most buildings have been placed into “night mode” where Buzzcard access is required and all authorized occupants still have access. Research faculty members and/or lab managers should report all essential personnel to the unit’s continuity plan manager to ensure that they retain the access level they need based on the essential activity criteria above.

Can graduate students be listed as essential personnel? Yes.

The Research Continuity Plan defined undergraduates as research personnel. Can they still have access? No. USG guidance published on March 16, 2020, states that undergraduates are not allowed to return to campus until further notice. For their safety and to maintain social distancing, those few undergraduates still on campus should not enter research buildings.

Can someone periodically enter a lab to perform critical periodic functions? Yes, if they are designated as essential personnel. Examples may include cell passaging, animal husbandry, maintenance of environments to sustain living organisms or chemical/physical processes (e.g. gas tank changes).

Can I come to campus to retrieve books, computers, or other essential materials to work remotely? Yes, but maintain social distance from peers and complete this task by Thursday, March 19, at 5 p.m. as specified in the letter from the EVPR.

Campus and Laboratory Health and Safety

How do I know if my lab or office has been fogged or otherwise disinfected?  Labs are not being disinfected or fogged. Fogging is happening in public areas. Building services normally does not clean labs. Offices are being disinfected.

How should knowledge that someone in the lab has been diagnosed with COVID-19 impact my lab's operations? If Georgia Tech has a confirmed diagnosis, Hepaco, an experienced environmental and emergency response company, will disinfect the lab with input from the PI.

What happens to my physical lab if one of my personnel tests positive? Will it be closed? Will it be decontaminated? Who makes these decisions? Same as above. It will be closed for disinfection. EHS will communicate closely with the PI about the process.

How will bio-waste be disposed and picked up? Continue to use EHSA to enter your waste pick up requests. EHS will continue to pick up chemical, biological, radiological waste. We will take a little longer, 7-10 business days.

Working with Georgia Tech Infrastructure

Will the Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP) and Office of Industry Engagement (OIE) continue to support proposal submission and reporting? What about delays in meeting sponsor deadlines? OSP and OIE are maintaining operations remotely. Please expect greater delays than usual and provide Contracting Officers with advance notice of submission deadlines. OSP is also posting guidance as they receive it from federal research sponsors regarding funding and reporting requirements. Updates are posted on the OSP and OIE coronavirus pages.

Is the Physiological Research Lab still in operation? The facility is maintained and staffed to protect and house vertebrate animals. Additional guidance is emailed to all IACUC PIs and guidance is posted on the Office of Research Integrity coronavirus webpage.

Can I conduct human subject research? All human subject research that requires in-person activities should be temporarily halted until further notice, consistent with campus guidance on maintaining social distancing on campus. The Center for Advanced Brain Imaging (CABI) has halted all use of its facility until further notice.

My essential research requires the ability to receive shipments. Can I place orders and receive shipments? Orders can still be placed using existing online tools. Goods will continue to be delivered by vendors, barring any disruption from shipping carriers. Units with loading docks have been designating essential personnel to ensure receipt of deliveries. Most loading docks have reduced hours or days of operation, and some may close and divert shipments to another loading dock. Consult with the unit that manages the loading dock that you use. The Ford ES&T and EBB loading docks, which are subcontracted to VWR/Avantor for operation, will work with GT on determining appropriate staffing levels and will communicate with occupants of EBB and the Bio Quad buildings. Environmental Health and Safety is in regular communication with critical suppliers (e.g. AirGas) and will update the campus community.

Will power or utilities be shut down to my building? There are no known plans at this date to shut down power or utilities on campus.

Ongoing Conduct of Research Activities

Can my research group meet off campus? The principle of social distancing should apply to all research activities. Research groups should not have in-person meetings, regardless of the location, and should instead utilize teleconferencing resources such as BlueJeans, WebEx and Microsoft Teams.

Does the restriction to off-campus activity apply to all research personnel, or just graduate students? It applies to all personnel.

Can a supervisor force a research employee to have an in-person meeting? No. All employees and graduate students need to consider the health and well-being of themselves and their family first.  Supervisors should only plan virtual meetings.

Thesis and Dissertation Proposals and Defenses should proceed as scheduled but use virtualization tools such as BlueJeans and WebEx.

If a GRA cannot continue their work remotely, can their appointment be terminated? All current appointments should remain through the end of the Spring 2020 semester. Additional guidance will be provided at a future date.