Research at KU works to adapt in the COVID-19 era

photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World File Photo

The Integrated Science Building in the Central District of the University of Kansas is pictured on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.

As institutes of higher education around the country continue to grapple with economic challenges surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, they are simultaneously dealing with unprecedented changes to how they conduct research.

In line with Douglas County’s stay-at-home order, which took effect Tuesday, and federally issued recommendations on social distancing, the University of Kansas had to order the stoppage of all non-essential research — a drastic move for a nationally-recognized research institution.

KU announced its suspension of all non-essential research activities at the Lawrence and Edwards campuses on Friday, Mar. 20. The move locked all campus research facilities except for essential personnel, forcing the stoppage of all projects that can’t be completed remotely. The university said it would reevaluate the status of research ability every two weeks, but it expected the suspension to last “for an extended period of time.”

How exactly the move will impact the university if COVID-19 forces a monthslong shutdown, is not yet known. KU Vice Chancellor for Research Simon Atkinson told the Journal-World it’s still too early to know how much of KU’s ongoing research work is essential or not.

“Many types of research and scholarship that can be conducted remotely are continuing without much interruption, and researchers who normally rely on labs or special facilities to do their work are adapting to the extent possible to keep advancing their projects,” Atkinson said.

That said, research units across the university and higher education as a whole are now forced to address the fact they may have to stop work for an unknown length of time — potentially affecting grants and funding at a time colleges are already cash-strapped.

So far, grant issuers have seemed to be flexible, given that the challenges folks are facing are similar across the board. Atkinson said agencies, including the federal government, have offered no-cost extensions to complete work, extending deadlines for reporting on current grants and submitting proposals for new ones, and allowing nonrefundable travel, payroll and other unanticipated COVID-19-related expenses to be paid for with grant dollars.

“The impact of COVID-19 on research and teaching is national and international in scope. Every university is dealing with the same challenges,” he said. “How KU fares will depend on how the recovery goes and what kind of help we get from the state and federal government.”

Donna Ginther, director of KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research, said most of their research involves analyzing secondary data sources, so it’s not terribly difficult to transition to a work-from-home environment.

All IPSR employees have been deemed essential and are working from their homes, Ginther said. The Institute is in the process of submitting a proposal to the National Science Foundation to fund the collection of coronavirus-related data.

For researchers who depend on a lab environment to conduct their work, however, the abrupt changes have been a difficult transition.

“These are extraordinary times, and it’s extremely disruptive,” Ginther said. “The policy environment is not designed to deal with this. It’s not a good situation in general for the economy.”

While the long-term economic impacts remain unclear, KU has committed to paying all employees, including researchers, for the duration of the pandemic, Atkinson said.

“With the expectation that all employees will continue to work and serve the university by completing assignments and/or professional development, without coming to campus, unless they have been identified as a mission-essential on-site employee,” he said.

In the short term, KU’s Office for Research is beginning to connect researchers with different resources to investigate and better understand the novel coronavirus.

Overall, the extent of the impact on KU’s research enterprise will depend on how long operations have to be suspended and if state and federal governments step in to cushion the blow.

“All of the research being conducted at KU is important, and we certainly want to limit disruptions,” Atkinson said. “But this unprecedented public health emergency requires bold action by everyone to ensure the short- and long-term health of our people and operations.”

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