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Update: Essential Research Extended

April 29, 2020

Dear research colleagues,

We are now in our sixth week since we began performing much of our research activity remotely. Despite this transition brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have heard from many groups that their off-campus work has remained productive, allowing time for writing manuscripts, preparing proposals, analyzing data, and training. We are also proud of all the essential research that has continued on campus and that is contributing in important ways to our COVID-19 response. Likewise, we are impressed by the many administrative offices that have shifted their efforts off campus while maintaining strong support of our research activities. Some of those units, due to the nature of their work, have had to continue providing support from campus.

Without a doubt, everywhere across our enterprise the Northwestern community has stepped up to meet the current challenge.

We understand that many of you are eager to return to the laboratory as soon as it is prudent to do so and I am as well. As you saw in yesterday’s message, the Governor’s stay-at-home order has been extended through May 31, and the University is preparing for a phased return to campus following the expiration of that order. Until that order is lifted, the guidance for research that I communicated on March 19 stands. I have included that current guidance below for your reference.

Current Guidance for the Duration of the Governor’s Stay-at-Home Order

Only essential research may be performed on campus. The categories that qualify as essential research were described in our earlier communication, and requests for designating members of your laboratory as essential employees should be directed to your School’s Associate Dean for Research. Undergraduate students, volunteers, and visitors are not allowed in research spaces without prior approval by the Vice President for Research.  

The core facilities remain largely available to support essential research. Many of the cores have made adjustments to their schedules, services offered, and procedures for access and use. You should contact them to arrange for their participation in your essential research. 

The Office for Research Safety remains on campus to support essential research in Evanston and Chicago. Essential researchers must continue to practice recommended social distancing and good hygiene. Health and safety information, as well as other resources and updates about Northwestern’s COVID-19 response, continue to be posted on the University’s coronavirus website.

Office for Research administrative units are working remotely, and continue to support the preparation and submission of proposals, review of protocols, and assistance with compliance requirements, among other functions.

IRB-approved studies may continue, and may enroll new participants, if they are essential to a participant’s health, clinical care, and/or well-being, if visits can be performed remotely (e.g., by phone or video conference), or if study activities do not involve direct participant contact (e.g., chart review, Qualtrics surveys). Otherwise, studies should be postponed. The IRB Office continues to process protocol submissions and gives priority to COVID-19 studies. 

The CCM staff continues to perform its husbandry and veterinary responsibilities to ensure the best care of animals. New orders will remain suspended except when needed for essential research. 

Looking Ahead to the First Phase of Reactivating Non-Essential Research

With the current understanding of the COVID-19 outbreak and trends, we believe that we can soon begin the first phase of transitioning more research to campus in a responsible way. The exact requirements and conditions for this phased return to campus are being developed and will depend on additional information from government and public health authorities. We expect that key points of this guidance will, at a minimum, include some of the factors outlined below. In your initial planning for your own research, you should be factoring in these considerations:

  • Reduce the number of people present in your offices and labs to facilitate working at a safe distance. Begin planning now about how best to organize your team into non-overlapping shifts. We also suggest that researchers who share a bench or work in proximity be assigned to different shifts.
  • Researchers should only conduct laboratory-based work when on campus; all other tasks, including writing, analysis, and meetings, should be performed at home.
  • University Libraries are actively planning for service resumption and will begin with a “pickup and delivery” service, offering scanning services, retrieval of belongings left in carrels and pickup of physical books requested through the online catalog. Contact library@northwestern.edu for more information.
  • Any individuals who have flu-like symptoms or a fever should not come to campus. 
  • Principal Investigators and managers should not pressure students, postdocs, and staff members to come to work if they are ill, if they need to stay at home to care for ill or homebound dependents, if they have an underlying condition that places them at risk, or for other reasonable concerns.
  • Use Zoom (or other digital conferencing platforms) for all meetings, even when personnel are on campus. 
  • Researchers should avoid gathering in break rooms and collaboration spaces. 
  • Researchers should wash their hands often and every time they enter and leave the lab.
  • Decontaminate all work surfaces and doorknobs at the beginning and end of each shift. We will be providing instructions and materials for proper cleaning. 
  • We will provide instructions for the acquisition and use of PPE items. We have been building up our stocks of these items for use in the research labs.
  • All personnel should avoid using lab phones and instead use your mobile phone during work. 

We plan to share more detailed guidance for a return to campus approximately 10 days before the expiration of the stay-at home order. This guidance will also include information about research involving animals and interactions with human research participants, on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses.

The pandemic has presented us with an unprecedented challenge and resulted in significant disruption to the way we live and work. But it has also brought out our best—from our research that is already having a real impact on fighting the disease, our staff who have shown incredible commitment and flexibility in supporting our work, and the positive spirit of our entire community—and I am confident we will emerge from this period as an even stronger preeminent research institution. I appreciate your productive work over the recent period, and I look forward to working with you to return our research to campus as soon as is possible.

Milan Mrksich
Interim Vice President for Research