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

 
 

During a crisis, it's easy for startup leaders to panic and make things worse. Here, we'll discuss how staying grounded will get you through a crisis. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

The great pandemic of 2020 has brought to the surface the issue of crisis management. Especially with nationwide business shut downs in the last eight months, many companies are on a rocky road of uncertainty. Entrepreneurs are unsure of what the future holds after seeing revenues slow or halt in some cases. Layoffs, RIFs, budget cuts, departmental downsizing; all inevitable.

Way too many startup founders aren't equipped or experienced when it comes to crisis management. "In order to keep your startup going, you have to know how to identify a crisis before it spreads like a cancer and how to make big changes and big decisions fast and often," says Gael O'Brien, the ethics coach for Entrepreneur.com.

"Any time in which the world stops functioning in a way we're used to, a deviation from the norm, that might be the biggest early sign of a crisis about to rear its head," she continued.

Admitting you have a problem

O'Brien stresses that a leader should create an easy process whereby one can identify a crisis in its infancy. The key here, she says, is to make sure to recognize a crisis before it starts to consume your company. You'll have to learn how to contain the crisis by leading the charge in rapid decision making. Many entrepreneurs simply refuse to admit there's a problem at hand. Many times, admitting there's a crisis means admitting one was wrong. It also means they may have been wrong for years.

These entrepreneurs that refuse admitting there's a crisis often do so with common refrains like "I didn't want to scare anyone" or "if I admit I was wrong this whole time I'll lose respect."

"Great leaders aren't afraid to put their company first, even if it means a blow to the ego. These leaders are not afraid to inform everyone that might be affected know there is a crisis," O'Brien explained.

"They contain the problem and prevent it from becoming unmanageable. Good leaders don't opt for a temporary Band-Aid-like fix either. They aim for a permanent solution."

Casting for a crisis management team

There are two common mistakes startup leaders make when it comes to crisis management. The first is that they can miscast a crisis management team. Meaning, they put the wrong people in decision-making roles. You want people on your crisis management team who are not going to feel they will be blamed for a crisis or for controversial decisions.

When one is afraid of being blamed for something, they are more likely to obstruct and lie so that the team's focus is diverted. "These are people that will omit objective and relevant information if it means saving their own reputation or job. You want people that put the team first," said O'Brien.

Communication during a crisis

The second common mistake startup leaders make during a crisis is that they tend to under-communicate. It becomes habitual to keep things close to the chest. To become secretive during a crisis. Managers might feel that the less people know, the less chance there is of panic. However, doing this opens your company up to wild speculation among employees. Assumptions. And these assumptions are never good.

"You have to be forthright. It's not just that people have a right to know what's going on in their own company. It's also that if you leave yourself up to speculation, people will grow frustrated and worse, scared. Scared people make crises worse," said O'Brien.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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