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Research Guidance for Transition to Essential-Only On-Campus Work

March 19, 2020

Dear Colleagues:

As you learned in the University-wide message this afternoon, the rapid evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic has required Northwestern to accelerate its response to this unprecedented challenge and to further modify research activities.

That message outlined next steps that we are taking to protect the health and safety of our community. Principal Investigators must immediately prepare for all non-essential research on-campus to be ramped down and paused by 5 p.m. Friday, March 20, and to transition research efforts to off-campus sites.  As described in today’s earlier memo, “essential” research can continue on campus. Such work is defined as:

  • COVID-19 research that has the potential to mitigate the pandemic’s spread;
  • Certain medical research that, if paused, would harm its research participants;
  • Procedures to maintain critical research infrastructure. For example: animal care, irreplaceable cell lines, laboratory equipment that requires gas or cryogenic monitoring, etc.;
  • Activities that if discontinued would result in significant degradation of safety and/or the loss of time and data.

If you have questions about whether any persons or activities are essential, please contact the Research Dean for your school. Your Dean and the Vice President for Research will decide what activities fall under the essential category. Research and core staff members in a University Research Institute or Center should contact the Director, who will work with the Vice President for Research to make decisions.

Additional Guidance

Here is further information and guidance for rapidly ramping down your on-campus research and for conducting essential research on campus:

  • Effective immediately, do everything possible to cease or curtail your non-essential research on campus and plan for research activity that can be performed off campus. Researchers should confer with their PIs to determine how best to make productive use of the time away from campus to advance their work. Examples of such work might include data analysis, writing papers and proposals, preparing for experiments, training, etc.
  • No undergraduates or external visitors are allowed in research spaces without prior approval by the Vice President for Research.
  • Graduate students and postdocs cannot be mandated to serve as an essential employee. They should not feel pressure (intentional or not) to work on campus or in a manner they feel compromises their health and safety. They are encouraged to contact The Graduate School or my office confidentially if such a situation arises.
  • Lab work deemed essential should be staggered so that minimal laboratory personnel are present at any one time. However, in alignment with standard safety protocol, no one should work in the lab alone, and individuals should continue to practice recommended social distancing and good hygiene.
  • Be aware that Core facilities will be reducing services, are likely to be short-staffed, and may be closed entirely.
  • PIs should ensure they have access to contact information for your students, postdocs, and staff, and review contingency plans and emergency procedures within your group.
  • Because these circumstances raise a host of human resources questions, we encourage you to contact your designated HR leaders.
  • Since our students and staff will continue to perform research both off and on campus, PIs should continue charging salaries to grants as normal. More information about costs charged to sponsored projects is found on the Sponsored Research site. Our research administration offices are prepared to offer their full support remotely to help you navigate these challenges.
  • Guidance for research involving human participants will continue to be updated on the IRB Office website.
  • Guidance for research involving animals will continue to be updated on the CCM website and IACUC Office website.

Additional updates will be available on our website and shared via the University COVID-19 News and Resources webpage.

We understand this significant step may be disruptive to your research, but are confident that you will be productive in performing work when you are off campus. Thank you for your efforts to keep our community safe, and for the sacrifices I know you must make to help our university pull through this very challenging time.

If you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me. If you have questions specific to your college, please contact your Dean’s office.


Milan Mrksich
Interim Vice President for Research