May/June 2020Vol. XXXII No. 5

Ramping Up On-Campus Research at MIT

Maria T. Zuber, Tyler E. Jacks

After two months of sequestering researchers from campus to address health concerns for our community as the world battled the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, plans are underway to restart campus research operations. As the Commonwealth of Massachusetts emerges from what is hopefully the most serious stage of the pandemic, MIT is undertaking intensive planning and an ongoing operational pilot aimed at ramping up on-campus research in a manner that prioritizes the safety of the MIT and surrounding community. The health and safety of the MIT community are our dominant concerns as MIT seeks to safely and equitably restore its research operations.

The planned scale-up of on-campus research has been a faculty-driven process overseen by the Senior Team and the Legal, Ethical and Equity (LEE) Committee((The Legal, Ethical, and Equity (LEE) Committee consists of two faculty members and the Chief Counsel, with additional representation of staff, graduate, and undergraduate students.)) . The LEE Committee was formed to ensure that new protocols are reviewed by a community group to ensure that we are complying with our laws, policies, and, most importantly that the guiding principles are consistent with our values and standards. To begin, the Vice President for Research (VPR) convened over 20 Department, Lab, and Center (DLC) directors to obtain input on the factors of greatest importance to them about restarting on-campus research.

The VPR then appointed the Research Ramp Up Lightning Committee((Marc Baldo, Suzanne Blake, Lou DiBerardinis,Vladimir Bulovic, James DiCarlo, John Donnelly, Tolga Durak, Elazer Edelman, Sarah Farrington, Peter Fisher, James Fox, Leny Gocheva, Ronald Hasseltine, Tyler Jacks, Timothy Jamison, Jacqueline Lees, Colleen Leslie, Aude Oliva, Nicholas Roy, Daniela Rus, and Dennis Whyte. This membership represents the original Lightning Committee plus members added to consider implementation.)) that included a subset of these DLC Heads and additional faculty and senior staff to develop a restart report. The Committee’s draft report was circulated to MIT PIs for comment. The Lightning Committee incorporated the feedback into a final report discussed below. The Offices of the VPR and Deputy Executive Vice President are now working with a subgroup of the Lightning Committee and other senior leaders and staff to develop an operational plan to implement the research ramp up (RR) according to the guidance contained within the Lighting Committee Report.

The ramp-down of on-campus research was a rapid and painful process that necessitated prioritizing “critical research” that could be performed on campus during the stay-at-home advisory. Prioritized were long-running projects, studies that made use of specialized animals or equipment for which there would be great cost in shutting down, final experiments needed to complete theses, and Covid-19 work whose outcome could address the current public health crisis.

The Provost and VPR made final decisions as to which projects were the highest priority, based on recommendations from Department Heads and Deans. As is usually the case in choosing among proposed research in internal competitions, it was extremely difficult to prioritize given the many worthy projects put forth.

Developing a Research Ramp-up Plan

The research ramp-up presented the opportunity to operate differently. Based on the recommendation of the Lightning Committee Report, the fundamental tenet of MIT’s ramp-up plan is PI empowerment. PIs are empowered to structure their research activities as they see fit to accommodate prescribed daily occupancy and density levels detailed in guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Criteria such as prioritizing projects with major deliverables on key grants and contracts, or accelerating progress for graduate students or postdoctoral scholars were offered as possibilities, but ultimately decisions rest with the PI.

The figure is a relative timeline that summarizes MIT’s ramp-down and ramp-up of on-campus research.

In the pre-Covid-19 era, a PI’s research effort consisted of two components: research that required on-campus access and that which could be done remotely (“virtualizable” research). In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, MIT rapidly and significantly scaled back on-campus research activity, resulting in an approximately 90% reduction in the research capacity and population on campus and concentrating PI effort on their “virtualizable” research. The ramp-up concentrates on addressing a phased approach to repopulating the on-campus research activity needed.

During Phase 1, each PI’s on-campus research activity will be capped at 25% of full capacity. Following successful completion of Phase 1, RR Phase 2 will allow PIs to have up to 50% of full capacity on campus. No specific time is set for the transition to Phase 2, but Phase 1 is expected to last at least several weeks. Here, the continued health of personnel will be highly influential in determining the rate at which on-campus activity can progress to a higher capacity. RR Phase 3 will not have a prescribed cap for on-campus research activity. However, depending on Covid-19 conditions, it could still be affected by limitations on the use of research spaces as mandated by the CDC and Commonwealth guidance that will inform MIT guidelines and policies.

Plan for ramping up on-campus research at MIT

The Lightning Committee has developed detailed guidelines to direct the ramp-up. Each DLC was asked to make a list of all PIs, and to deliver floor plans and instructions for planning to those PIs. PIs were assigned two exercises; the first was to develop a space layout consistent with Covid-19 safety guidelines. All spaces need to adhere to a maximum personal density and spacing at all times. The second deliverable from each PI was a group plan for on-campus research. Researchers eligible to participate in on-campus research are required to fill out an acknowledgment form developed by the LEE Committee. That form attests to their willingness to participate in on-campus research. The PIs will receive a list of eligible individuals but are not given information on why an individual is not on the list, nor should they ask the individual directly. MIT has an anonymous hotline that connects to a third party for anyone who wishes to express a concern. In receiving input from the community, the most frequent issue raised was the need to maintain safe working conditions. Access to child care and commuting are also frequently mentioned and are among the factors that contribute to an individual’s decision of whether to return to campus at a given time.

Operationalizing the Plan: RR Pilot

As of May 18, as the Commonwealth’s stay-at-home advisory was slowly being lifted, MIT began to pilot new procedures to prepare the campus for a return to research using the personnel already designated to perform critical research in those buildings. During this pilot, the number of individuals approved to access campus did not increase. The pilot featured Buildings 76, E17/E18/E19/E25, and 68, which were chosen for controlled access and suitable lobby space. Individuals enter the building through a single, first-floor entry.

They are expected to wear a mask((MIT has a policy on Personal Protective Equipment and will provide masks if needed during the ramp-up.)) and maintain appropriate social distance in the unlikely event there is a queue. When entering the building, individuals swipe their IDs to verify that they have permission to enter. Signage is being posted to summarize guidance for building use. In the second part of the pilot, approximately a week later, participants will be asked to complete the acknowledgment form indicating voluntary participation, completion of an Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) training specific to Covid-19 protocols, and complete a daily health attestation questionnaire, which will indicate either that a researcher is cleared to come to campus or should quarantine at home and wait to be contacted by MIT Medical. Researchers agree to frequent hand washing, and SARS-CoV-2 virus testing, which will also be required of all returning personnel. The pilot will also feature enhanced cleaning of exposed surfaces and guidelines for use of common spaces outside labs (e.g., elevators, lounges). These elements of the pilot will be instructive as to how to ramp-up research activities in other campus buildings.

Additional Considerations

As part of the research ramp-up plan, many of MIT’s core facilities, shared resources, other central services as well as animal facilities are being made available to facilitate research activities across campus. However, it is essential that they can function safely and within the policies regarding safe workplace practices and, in some cases, with reduced staffing. For this reason, PI research plans were required to include a prioritized list of core facilities needed. Time spent in core facilities, animal facilities, and other shared facilities needed to be included in the calculation of allowable per-week, on-campus time for these additional facilities and services.

Although the guidance given to this point focuses on research labs, which overwhelmingly represent the greatest fraction of research that must be done on campus, projects that require space on campus other than labs can be submitted to DLC heads for consideration. Indeed, a number of projects in SHASS were deemed a high priority and received campus access during the stay-at-home period. A separate faculty and staff group from the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (SHASS), the Sloan School, the School of Architecture and Planning (SAP), and the Libraries is being convened to address issues specific to repopulating campus researchers in these disciplines.

The Committee on the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects (COUHES) is also developing guidance regarding human subject research and recommends a two-step process. First, PIs will need to complete a brief application to restart human subjects research; and second, for approved projects, subjects will need to be screened before coming to campus for their Covid exposure and/or symptoms status.

At the outset, research should be limited to healthy adults and will proceed at a later time to the vulnerable (children, those with cognitive impairments, etc.). Not until a later stage would those at highest risk (over 65, chronic heart and lung disease, etc.) be allowed on campus. COUHES is developing a web-based tool to facilitate the approval process. Human subject research that requires fieldwork will be considered on a case-by-case basis, given the greatly varying public health state of regions across the globe.

In summary, the ramping-up of research activities on the MIT campus will feature a methodical, measured, and phased approach. Safety of MIT and the surrounding community is paramount. The ongoing feedback of the MIT community will be critical to ensure that the process meets the needs of our faculty, research staff, and students as we balance the desire to expand on-campus research operations with ongoing health and safety concerns.