Houston voices

University of Houston looks at how to navigate which ongoing research is considered essential

Is all research essential? Nope. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Many researchers have begun to work from home due to the novel COVID-19 pandemic, and only essential personnel are allowed to work on university campuses. For a researcher, what is considered "essential personnel"? Isn't all research essential to the workings of a public research university?

In a word, no.

As much as one would like to believe their respective job is of the utmost importance to human existence, certain mitigating factors can overrule that sensibility – and the definition of the word "essential" – in a moment's time. According to an article in Inside Higher Education, a Ph.D. candidate researching diabetes at the University of Toronto said, "There is no single experiment or laboratory activity that is more important than saving the life of even a single individual in the community."

Your university or institution may not have closed completely, yet it is safe to suspect that you have been asked to complete most of your work remotely. With most counties in the nation declaring a shelter in place order, researchers who have been required to "ramp down" lab activities may be feeling extreme disappointment and even panic.

Allowances and exceptions for federally funded research

The NSF has extended deadlines for some applications and reports. For instance, it has extended the dates of all annual project reports due between March 1 and April 30 by 30 days. In addition, the charge of costs or fees that have been incurred due to COVID-19 can be negotiated, as long as there is proper documentation and the result is not a shortage of funds to eventually carry out the project.

The NIH released NOT-OD-20-086 on March 12, 2020 to alert the research community of certain flexibilities which apply to NIH applicants and recipients. Some of these include pre-award costs, extension of required reporting, prior approval waivers and expenditure of award funds – especially involving travel. There are other exceptions being made, including allowing salaries to be charged against grant monies in some instances.

So, you have to go to campus

If you are a researcher who ensures the continuity of key operations, such as an animal care operations worker, there are several things you can do to keep yourself and your colleagues safe, which will come as no

surprise:

  1. Very few researchers are allowed on campus. If you are working on campus, keep 6 feet away from your co-workers. There should be a greatly reduced number of researchers in the lab or facility at any given time.
  2. Wash your hands. Follow all environmental safety and hazardous material rules to a tee.
  3. Be careful when getting deliveries and regularly clean your workspace.
  4. Research the many funding opportunities that are available to contribute to the solution of COVID-19 related issues.

Just breathe…it’s going to be okay

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that an emergency plan is the best bet for staving off panic and flowing as seamlessly as possible into a remote working situation. As always, safety is goal one and this situation's trajectory is causing safety concerns to escalate. Your research will ramp up again, make no mistake, although for the time being it may have fallen victim to this outbreak. If you stay in close adherence to policies put forth by your institution and you keep your sponsor abreast of your next steps, all will work out in the end.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Sarah Hill is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

As of this week, Lara Cottingham is the chief of staff at Greentown Labs. Photo via LinkedIn

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

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