Updates and Information on Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue

COVID-19 Research Update: March 16, 2020

Memo from Interim Vice Chancellor for Research Matthew Mench regarding research continuity during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) situation. 

Dear Research Community:

I am writing to update the research community on the evolving situation, and the actions we are taking to ensure we maintain safety for our students, staff and faculty during this period. I would like to thank those of you who have offered constructive and creative feedback to help us manage the situation.

What is changing today?

Moving forward, we are entering a phase of scaling-down of onsite experimental and shop activities, with the goal of reaching a minimized state of ongoing research and interaction.  Please continue to complete the contingency plans* for research as soon as possible if you have not so that they can be reviewed by department heads and deans before finalization and submission to me by this Friday, March 20. It is important to note that this is not a shutdown of research, but we are encouraging that as much of the research continuing during this period as possible be conducted remotely.

We are asking the research community to perform meetings remotely, reduce gatherings as much as possible, and to perform work remotely where possible, starting immediately. Working on data analysis, report writing, and other activities that can be performed remotely is highly encouraged.  For experimental work, we are encouraging all labs to stop ongoing experiments when safely possible, and delay the onset of new experimental work for the time being.  However, some ongoing research must necessarily be conducted in our on-campus facilities. For this research, our goal is to perform the work safety by ensuring minimal staffing of the research labs while adhering to normal laboratory safety protocols, including having a minimum of two individuals in a single laboratory room when experimental work is occurring.

Guiding principles

We will remain flexible and creative in addressing the needs of our students to make progress toward degrees and meeting the needs of our research programs, while maintaining a maximum possible level of safety in our labs and shops.  To achieve this outcome, we are seeking a significant reduction in on-campus lab and shop activity. A goal is to reduce activity to a level that is as low as possible, with as few people as possible, while maintaining the ability to continue to complete required progress for the students and sponsors.

As the individual leadership in colleges and departments are best equipped to be able to identify and mitigate issues as they arise in individual labs, we ask they are active and communicate regularly to share best practices, solve issues, and continue to flow ideas and solutions upward to leadership so that we can all move forward with the benefit of the community of ideas being developed.

Why are we doing this?

We are seeking to limit the spread of the virus through person-to-person contact, while maximizing safety for our students, staff, faculty and the community.  At the same time, we are working to enable our students to continue to make necessary progress toward their degrees in research and education.  It is important to recognize that these activities and their changes should be done while continuing to operate with appropriate laboratory safety protocols.  Doing so requires all of us to work together to be creative, flexible, and adjust rapidly to changing conditions.

Submission and review of contingency plans by departments, colleges, and research centers

The present schedule for submission and review of contingency plans is:

  • March 17: Appropriate person develops a contingency plan* for a facility
  • March 18: Person communicates and discusses plan with the departmental/center safety officer, and department head or research center director to finalize (March 18th)
  • March 19: Department head or director communicates, discusses and finalizes the plans with their college dean or selected delegate (typically an associate dean for research), or supervisor of the center director (March 19th)
  • March 20: The plans from the College and supervisors of groups for research centers and labs provide the plans to ORE and other necessary parties for discussion, revision and approval (March 20th)

Fortunately, the majority of contingency plans have been submitted at this time*, and we are now ready to facilitate the review process. Three important goals of the review process particularly at the department/center and college/center level are to:

  • Ensure that every research laboratory, instructional laboratory, and departmental shop that needs a contingency plan has one submitted.
  • All critical and necessary functions that must occur during a cessation of research-related or instruction-related laboratory activities are identified through the contingency plans, and the department/center and college/center have verified that this essential function is actually necessary.
  • If a contingency plan is created for a lab that shows it can cease activities in a day, the department/center and college/center has verified that this approach for cessation of activities is possible and no additional action would be needed.

With respect to the mechanics of the review process, when the submit button is pushed on the online plans, it creates a row of information in a master spreadsheet.  Unfortunately, this spreadsheet cannot be protected from persons with edit access, so we are only providing “view” access.  Persons with “view” access are able to download the spreadsheet and then perform any operations (e.g., formatting, sorting, deletion, etc.) that are needed to assist the review process.  Please be aware that as the submission of contingency plans is a dynamic process, any download will be a snapshot, so more than one download will likely be needed by these individuals over the next few days.  Persons with “view” access will receive an email providing them with a SharePoint link to the spreadsheet (shortly after this message), and at that point, please use the spreadsheet for the review process.

A department/center should complete its review process for all of its contingency plans, and then notify its college/center that it has completed review, plus provide a summary of any key items or issues that arose in their review by March 18.  Similarly, a college/center should complete its review process for all of its contingency plans, and then notify the Office of Research (Matthew Mench) that it has completed review, plus provide a summary of any key items or issues that arose in the review by March 19.  Again, thanks to everyone for their work to achieve this set of approved and available contingency plans.

Should I conduct new experimental work?

The initiation of new long-term experiments (durations of more than a very few consecutive days) is strongly discouraged, as of now. Research that involves person-to-person contact is strongly discouraged. PIs should work with department heads and responsible administration to identify research needs that are truly necessary and suspend those that are not.

Will I still be paid?

Researchers (students and staff) who are on a contract are still to perform research duties as assigned and will be paid accordingly. However, we are asking for all activities which can be to be shifted online, students to work away from campus and at home where possible, and lab directors and leadership to work to minimize student-to-student contact.

What is the timeline for these changes?

The change to pursuing as much research-related work as possible remotely and with social distancing should begin immediately.  The sooner that we pursue safe practices, the more limited the spread of COVID-19 will be and the more people will remain safe. As of now, there is no end date for this, and we will constantly evaluate the situation and inform the community as the situation evolves.

Additional guidance

Institutes, Centers, and Interdepartmental lab leaders should make sure they are coordinating action with the Department Heads and Deans that are relevant to their unit and all leaders involved.

There is no issue with maintaining primary utilities (power, water etc.), or plan for them to cease.

We are in process of working with the myriad sponsors to identify procedures for moving forward in this situation in case research activities become impossible due to changing conditions.  Further guidance on this will be provided on an ongoing basis.

Please distribute this information and work to encourage rapid completion of plans in your unit.  Another email communication will follow later this afternoon concerning the mechanics and goals of the review process for these plans and further information. We are also regularly updating information online at utk.edu/coronavirus/.

*All contingency plans have been submitted and are under review. The online form has been closed.

Matthew Mench
Interim Vice Chancellor for Research


Read the latest COVID-19 research updates from the Office of Research and Engagement.