IOWA CITY — Iowa’s top research universities are scaling back their investigative endeavors, and even pausing them entirely, as the novel coronavirus continues to complicate their capacity to collaborate with human subjects and animal resources.
Research projects funnel hundreds of millions of dollars worth of grants to the state’s public universities as teams conduct research into medicine, the food supply, even outer space among other topics.
In 2017-18, Iowa’s public universities spent $411.5 million on payroll and $465.3 million on other expenses for research activities — enough to support 9,682 jobs, according to a study commissioned by the state Board of Regents.
Safety concerns have brought new restrictions, although research tied to COVID-19 and clinical trials involving lifesaving treatments continue.
“In some cases, research should be paused, as is the case for in-person human subject studies, to reduce the risk of exposure to both participants and researchers,” according to new guidance Iowa State University Vice President for Research Sarah Nusser issued Thursday.
At the University of Iowa, similarly, Vice President for Research Marty Scholtz this week advised all of his campus’ principal investigators to “immediately prepare for all on-campus research to be ramped down to the greatest extent possible.”
“In effect, the research enterprise must shift to a state of hibernation and significantly minimize the presence of research personnel on campus,” Scholtz wrote.
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Ramping down research across Iowa’s public universities — including at the University of Northern Iowa — amounts to a significant imposition on their missions, especially at the UI and ISU, both designated “Carnegie Research 1” institutions.
In fiscal 2019, the UI generated $467 million in research support. ISU set a record of $260.9 million.
What impact scaling down the research projects will have on funding levels and existing grants remains unknown.
Nonetheless, Scholtz urged UI investigators to “do everything you can to cease or curtail your campus activities to the barest minimum levels to preserve your research” — some of which, he noted, “has taken decades or entire careers to amass.”
And given the shortage of personal protective equipment like masks and goggles, researchers should “be extremely conservative” in using their inventory.
“These supplies should be made available for UI Hospitals & Clinics and other priority staging areas,” he wrote.
UI scientists must complete “contingency plans for your research immediately,” and administrators outlined specific changes in policies and practices around human subjects and animal sources — including suspending new animal orders, animal deliveries or breeding of commercially-available animals used in research.
A temporary human subjects policy at the UI requires participant visits be performed remotely when possible, or postponed if they’re not essential to a participant’s health and can’t be done over the phone or internet.
Likewise, ISU’s new research guidance stresses social distancing.
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“It is no longer possible to conduct such research that — in the case of in-person human subjects studies — creates significant risk of disease exposure to participants and researchers,” according to the ISU communication.
Nusser, the ISU vice president, asked researchers to work with department chairs and directors to determine if projects should be modified or suspended.
“There’s no doubt we are in uncharted territory, but we’re doing so together,” she wrote.
Although UNI doesn’t engage in as much research as its peer institutions, UNI Director of Research and Sponsored Programs Tolif Hunt said none of his programs have been put “on hold” but rather modified.
“Schedules have changed, scopes of work have had to be revised, and meetings have shifted from face-to-face to virtual formats,” he said.
Joe Bolick, director of UNI’s Iowa Waste Reduction Center, for example, has seen his research on food waste in K-12 schools affected by the widespread closures.
“We have done a lot of waste audits in cafeterias in Iowa and, for the next four weeks, we won’t be doing any,” he said.
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