CALS 2021 research continuance guidance

This information was provided by Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Programs Bill Barker on 2/16/21.

First, congratulations to all for your remarkable resilience during this past year of the global pandemic.  Our careful and demonstrably effective strategies have enabled us to persevere with no evidence of viral transmission in our laboratories or field sites. This in and of itself constitutes a notable achievement, and I remain deeply grateful to you all for your cooperation. Even though it’s very cold outside and well over a foot of snow blankets the ground in Madison, research on campus continues apace. In addition, many of you are now busily planning for the upcoming field season.

Unfortunately, recent discovery of several variants of the novel coronavirus necessitates an important word of caution. From the beginning of the pandemic, we have always stated that sudden changes in certain metrics might require us to reduce the scope of our research activities. As you probably know, variant B.1.1.7, first identified in Britain, exhibits both increased transmissibility (50-70%) and lethality (35%).  B 1.1.7 now occurs widely in the United States, doubling every ten days and projected to be the dominant strain by mid-March. Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines continue to be highly effective against this variant.  Several other variants now exist as well, including a strain first identified in South Africa against which vaccines exhibit reduced effectiveness. Nonetheless, while the pandemic continues to pose significant challenges, given the success of our current efforts, readily available COVID testing, and a campus goal to vaccinate all staff by the end of spring semester, we feel comfortable in projecting that research in our buildings and in the field can and should continue at a level similar to last summer and fall.

For CALS, the research plan  approval process remains the same. All researchers must complete the CALS research request forms and update their individual lab COOPs as necessary. Following review and approval by your chair and departmental research reactivation committee, PIs should update their OVCRGE database entryPlease keep in mind the OVCRGE database does not figure into our review and approval process, for the data gathered are insufficient to allow departments to carefully integrate increased activity into overall departmental density/traffic control plans. PIs should only enter information into that portal AFTER review and approval by their chair/center director and attendant research reactivation committee.

Please use the same strategies employed last year to strictly minimize travel to campus buildings.  If you can store and access field supplies off-campus, please do so.

While no special permission for in-state travel is required, out of state travel remains highly restricted and requires special permission from Associate Dean Angie Seitler.

There are several important developments of which you all should be aware:

  1. Undergraduates are now allowed to physically participate in research. Individual PIs may add undergraduates to their research requests and COOPs, and departments will review and decide whether or not the overall departmental plans can accommodate the resultant density and activity in buildings. Undergraduates must follow all applicable rules. There is no special request and approval process in CALS for undergraduates.
  2. Research now shows that it is possible for two occupants to travel in a single vehicle, provided they are appropriately outfitted with tight fitting masks, sit as far apart as possible and open the windows.
  3. Face to face human subjects research may continue, subject to IRB review and approvals.
  4. Campus decided to further relax density restrictions from 350 square feet per person to 200 square feet per person. I want to be very clear that your department does not have to adopt this increased density metric if you feel it is unsafe to do so. Should you decide to further increase the density of personnel in labs, you must rework your departmental plans accordingly.

Conducting research on campus and in the field as the pandemic continues represents an important, albeit risky endeavor. I urge you to be judicious in your decisions.  Err on the side of caution and strictly prioritize health and safety of our Badger family. Please closely monitor all available information for campus, as well as the public health sites.  We will also closely monitor parameters related to the pandemic (coronavirus variants, infection rates, ICU capacity, etc.) and ongoing campus efforts (e.g. testing capacity, vaccinations, travel restrictions) and adjust this guidance as necessary.  As always, feel free to contact Doug Sabatke, or me directly should you have questions. Please be careful, be safe, and On Wisconsin!

Bill Barker, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Programs
Associate Director of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station