Updates and Information on Coronavirus (COVID-19)
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COVID-19 Research Update: March 18, 2020

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

Main messages for today:

Thank you to those of you that have completed your required contingency plans, which are now past due to the department heads.  If there are lab directors in your units that have not yet completed them, please have the DHs communicate with them of this requirement.  This process is contingency planning for a situation that does not currently exist, which would be the much more severe situation where we are ordered to cease all but the most essential activities and leave campus.

Our current status for research work on campus is that of the university, which has set the goals of 1) Protecting community health, 2) Maximizing social distancing by reducing the number of people on campus, and 3) Maintaining campus operations.  We are asking all supervisors to be creative in devising plans with the people working in the labs to work remotely where possible, and if in the lab, with safe practices. Report writing, group meetings preferably by digital conferencing, literature review, test planning, data analysis, paper writing and proposal writing are all things that we should be able to be performed remotely.  Staggered lab occupation for larger groups is something that should be devised for on-campus work. For lab work, please make sure to continue to follow all normal lab safety guidelines, which are now augmented to include maximized social distancing and telework where possible to provide a healthy environment while maintaining research operation.  Department heads should work within their units to share this message, and make sure that our students are being provided a safe working environment that is consistent with the rest of the university operations.  We have gotten a few messages from family members that are concerned that the graduate students are not being treated the same as undergraduates. It is critical that we ensure the implementation of policy is consistent across all groups on campus. DHs should continue to make sure, as they have in the past, that all lab operations remain safety conducted according to the current guidelines.

Will GRAs still be paid?

GRAs should continue to work on the particular projects they are paid from. Students should work with their supervisors to develop plans to continue the funded research, according to the guidelines posted.

Guidance on existing research projects?

Over the past few weeks there have been many questions regarding the impact of COVID-19 on existing research projects.  The Council on Governmental Relations has been compiling and updating guidance on their website from several of the federal agencies. Based on the information provided to date, below is a list of items to consider for your sponsored projects.

  1. Agencies will allow requests for no cost extensions if needed to meet objectives or goals for currently active projects.
  2. Salaries and fringe benefits would be considered an allowable cost on the sponsored project under university policy and our DS-2 statement if the university closes.
  3. Most agencies will be flexible with dates for deliverables (reports, milestones, etc.) but it can delay the next increment of funding.
  4. Non-federal agencies are encouraging us to contact the Program Officer to discuss any anticipated delay and the potential impact to the project.

PIs should continue to meet deliverable dates for funded research while working in the present maximized social-distancing and telework mode. If you have questions unique to your sponsored project, please contact Jean Mercer at 974-2465 or jmerce10@utk.edu in the Office of Sponsored Programs for assistance.

Should I conduct new experimental work?

This is possible, but we are asking PIs to follow safety guidelines as described and limit experiments that would be long-term or would involve excessive person-to-person contact. However, please know that delaying research if possible helps allow the campus to achieve its goals of a safer working environment during this COVID-19 pandemic.  PIs should work with department heads and appropriate administration personnel to identify research needs that are truly necessary.  The reasons for this necessity could include potential for impeded progress toward a degree, appropriate progress to meet deliverables for a funder, ongoing experiments that could not safely be stopped, or necessary maintenance on facilities and equipment.

What about lab safety?

Attached are updates guidelines for human subject’s research.  All other research in labs should follow normal standard safety procedures, with the addition of maximizing social distance and telework. This would include the need for two people in labs at once, safely spaced, for experimental work.

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 change, and we will constantly evaluate the situation and inform the community as the situation evolves.

We are regularly updating information online—including updated information for human subject research—at utk.edu/coronavirus/.  Thanks for your continuing assistance.

Matthew Mench
Interim Vice Chancellor for Research

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