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Northwestern University

Coronavirus - Research

This email communication below was sent to Weinberg College faculty on March 15, 2020.

Dear colleagues,
 

In light of the second confirmed case of COVID-19 on the Evanston campus, I would like to provide you with some further guidance concerning our research enterprise, focusing in particular on work conducted in laboratories. We do this in light of our encouraging best practices in addressing Heath Concerns, including “social distancing” and remote work. Following these practices will have particular impact on our laboratory-based research and related teaching/training.

On Friday afternoon, Vice President for Research Milan Mrksich sent a message asking you to begin considering how your research operations can be reduced to employ mitigation strategies. Yesterday, colleagues in my office began communicating with the chairs of your departments to document your essential laboratory personnel needs and develop plans for reducing operations in your labs. We are also charged with providing guidance to College faculty members who direct University Research Institutes and Centers (URICs). 

In this email, we will cover three topics:

1. Continuity Planning, Personnel Management, Equipment, etc.

2. Funding Agencies and Grant Management

3. Research Involving Human Subjects

1. Continuity Planning, Personnel Management, Equipment, etc.

Anticipating that we may want to minimize the number of on-site personnel, we ask that, by March 19th, each laboratory identify no more than 3 key individuals to manage essential tasks such as animal care or critical experiments—those activities that if discontinued would result in significant degradation of safety and/or the loss of time and data. We encourage you to develop ways to help your other students, trainees, and research personnel to perform what they can remotely. If you have not already, it may be helpful to explore the advice and tools available to us through NUIT that support, for example, the holding of meetings virtually.

 Most of you have already developed operational continuity plans in your capacity as head investigator of your laboratory, center, or institute. If you have, I ask you to review your continuity plan now. If you have not, I ask that you develop one now. 

These plans should ensure, at minimum, that you have accurate and up-to-date information on:

  1. Prioritized essential functions.
  2. A list of essential personnel for essential functions, with schedules for on-site personnel.
  3. Communication protocols (such as a phone tree).
  4. Essential resources, including equipment and supplies, with continuity outlines that address critical equipment dependent upon building utilities such as electricity, temperature, chill water, etc.

These plans should be shared with your team, published, and posted. In addition, personnel schedules should be posted in a conspicuous location, such as your laboratory’s main entrance, for reference.  

My office has reviewed and found helpful this Continuity Planning and Recovery Guide for Laboratories and Research Facilities from the University of Texas at Dallas. I encourage you to consult it; you may find it a useful complement to your existing continuity plan. We found particularly illuminating the worksheets that might help document the above prioritized planning principles, as well as recovery strategies, equipment and supply inventories, etc.

Looking ahead, I ask you to develop a thorough continuity plan for your laboratory with the understanding that this ramp-down period may extend beyond the next few weeks. For this reason, it is especially crucial that all laboratories know who is responsible for what effort. Should emergencies occur on campus during the ramp-down at Northwestern, we will be relying on you to provide leadership when it comes to mitigating risks and, for example, addressing equipment failures. 

2. Funding Agencies and Grant Management

We understand that the COVID-19 pandemic and the guidance we offer in response to it will have negative impacts on research progress and this will then have repercussions with funding agencies and grant management. We continue to place the highest priority on the safety and health of our faculty, students, and staff, and hope that this can be accomplished while allowing essential research functions to continue.  Federal funding agencies including the NIH and NSF recognize the unprecedented nature of this event and are developing policies to provide increased flexibility with respect to grants administration.

As of this writing, we note that agencies differ in their approach to permitting late submissions for new proposals. For example, NIH is considering them on a case-by-case basis. NSF is holding firm on submission dates. All agencies, however, are promising flexibility with no-cost extensions on existing awards, progress reports, etc. Direct communication with your institutional contact at the funding agency is recommended to formalize these arrangements.

We do not have comprehensive information from all federal agencies, but here are some links that we have found helpful:

NIH

https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-20-086.html

https://grants.nih.gov/faqs#/covid-19.htm

https://grants.nih.gov/grants/natural_disasters/corona-virus.htm

NSF

https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/coronavirus/

3. Research Involving Human Subjects

The Institutional Review Board Office has provided guidance on flexibility in changing protocols to eliminate immediate hazard. The IRB office asks researchers to file a Reportable New Incident (RNI) within five days of implementing the change. The memo from the IRB office is linked on that office’s landing web page (https://www.irb.northwestern.edu).

Conclusion

As you can tell from the range of communications you are receiving from the College and the University, the situation is dynamic. The above information is offered trying to address current concerns and looking ahead. That said, the situation may change in the coming days, weeks, and months. Therefore, please note that our guidance may change to address a changing context.

As always, we encourage you to keep up-to-date by consulting the University’s Coronavirus/COVID-19 Updates website and the College’s Coronavirus Information website.

We thank you for your continued cooperation and commend you for your thoughtfulness in caring for the wellbeing of all our faculty and staff colleagues and our students in the days and weeks to come.

The Weinberg College Research Administration Office remains fully operational and can help with your questions. Please refer to our contact list. 

Best regards,
Adrian

Adrian Randolph
Dean
Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
Northwestern University

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