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May 8, 2020 – Ramping up on-campus research activities

Posted by on Friday, May 8, 2020 in Community Messages.

Dear colleagues,

As you all know, on-campus research activities were ramped down in mid-March as part of efforts to protect our community and curb the spread of COVID-19. Over the past two months, and with guidance from the Public Health Advisory Task Force, leaders across the university have been working to develop a phased and detailed plan for having research activities that cannot be performed remotely brought back to our campus in a safe and effective way.  While you have all been extremely productive during this remote work period, continuing to publish, develop proposals, and indeed even start new collaborations, I understand that you are eager to undertake research activities on-campus that cannot be carried on remotely.

As you read in Interim Chancellor Wente’s message yesterday, we are now beginning our phased approach to ramp up specific on-campus research activities. Our multi-phase research ramp-up matrix details the different phases that will guide us through the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. These phases are aligned with the university’s overall strategy for resuming campus operations.

As with the plans set forth by our peer leading research AAU institutions and VUMC, our ramp-up plan reflects a metrics-based approach that will equitably support all forms of research. Our plan also accounts for the fluctuating nature of the pandemic, as COVID-19 infection rates may continue to wax and wane. It is also worth noting that, in order to protect the safety of our community, all work that can be conducted remotely will continue to stay off campus. Further details will be available in the Return to Campus Plan, which will be posted on Monday, May 11.

I encourage you to review the matrix in its entirety. For your more immediate reference, I am also including an overview of the initial phases below:

  • Today on May 8th, we are currently in Phase 0, with less than 5% maximum occupancy for on-campus research activities. We consider this a pre-phase to the 4-Phase Research Ramp-up Plan.
  • During the coming weeks, we will move into Phase I, with up to 33% maximum occupancy for on-campus research spaces. This transition will require a reconfiguration of spaces to enable appropriate distancing, as well as the implementation of scheduling protocols, such as working in shifts. No undergraduate students will be permitted to participate in on-campus research during this time.
  • While we anticipate that our researchers will be able to work productively during Phase I, the shift from Phase 0 to Phase I will require a gradual progression as faculty and staff work together to carefully prepare and implement precautions to mitigate risks of COVID-19.

We are planning for specific on-campus operations to begin as early as May 18 as part of Phase I. If you have research activities that need to be brought back to campus around this time, or shortly thereafter, we encourage you to begin preparing now.

It is also important to note that the process for resuming essential on-campus research activities will be managed largely within individual schools and colleges. As such, please bear in mind the following processes and considerations:

  • Each faculty lead, research director or their designee (e.g., lab manager) should complete a Research Ramp-up Intake Form outlining plans for a safe return to specific research activities. These should be submitted to supervisory entity, typically the associate dean for research, if applicable, or the respective dean.
  • Supervisory entities will review intake forms, and notify of approval, including any necessary revisions to the proposed plans including the return-to-campus start date.
  • We expect that the majority of reviews and approvals will be conducted at the school or college level. However, in cases where there is significant cross-college activity or VUMC collaboration, additional coordination through the Vice Provost for Research office may be needed.

In making approval decisions, deans and other supervisors will consider the following factors among others:  How well the proposed plans address necessary safety measures, the extent to which different fields and types of on-campus research activities are given the opportunity to begin research in Phase I, and the relevance of the proposed research activity to COVID-19, if appropriate.

Prior to embarking on the processes outlined above, I encourage you to review the current resources we have prepared to help with this transition that are posted to the Research website. These resources will continue to be updated as new information becomes available. I encourage you to routinely review this information. These include:

I know that there are many complexities inherent in this process, but I am confident that these reopening steps for Phase 1 are appropriate and allow us to continue to making discoveries that have a positive impact on our society, in a safe and measured way. As Interim Chancellor and Provost Wente said in her message, resuming on-campus research and other activities will require the complete and constant commitment of every member of our community to following our campus operating protocols.

I am deeply grateful to everyone who collaborated in creating this plan, including Vanderbilt’s associate deans for research, the dean of the Graduate School, the Office of the General Counsel and Vanderbilt University Environmental Health and Safety, and generous support from Vice Chancellor for Administration Eric Kopstain.

In many ways, COVID-19 is as real and present today as it was when we first made the difficult decisions to suspend in-person classes, research activities and campus operations in early March. For that reason, a full return to on-campus research cannot happen overnight. We are taking this next step to ramp up on campus research activities that cannot be performed remotely. As researchers, you have always approached experimentation and learning with a deep sense of responsibility to the safety of not only yourself but of your colleagues, students and our campus community.  It is our culture of responsibility not only to ourselves but towards others that is at the heart of these plans.

In the coming weeks, continued collaboration and honest dialogue will be critical as we continue to further refine these plans based on input from our research community as well as advisory groups such as the Vanderbilt University Research Council, the Public Health Advisory Task Force and the University Continuity Working Groups, among others.

I look forward to working together to advance our research mission.


Padma Raghavan

Vice Provost for Research

Professor of Computer Science & Computer Engineering