US research labs closing down for everything but coronavirus

Research losses could be small but wider national epidemic control measures may prove a ‘once-in-a-century evidence fiasco’, according to experts

March 23, 2020
Source: Getty

US research universities are rapidly scaling back or shutting down their lab-based projects as they, like the federal government, shift their focus to prioritise work on the new coronavirus above almost all other investigative activity.

The widespread relocation of scientists to home offices appears to be going without major problems, aided by the extensive forbearance of federal grant agencies and the adoption in recent years of sophisticated data-sharing platforms.

The process is even helping to identify possible areas of long-term improvement for research practices. According to Denis Wirtz, vice-provost for research at Johns Hopkins University, examples include the prospects for research topics and grant review panels that focus more tightly on the most critical questions.

Dr Wirtz, also a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins, the top US university by research spending, said there is in academic science “a culture of perpetually asking for more experiments that don’t change conclusions”.

“If this [crisis] lasts long enough, there could be a cultural change in how we organise ourselves and work together as scientists,” he said.

The nation’s largest funder of basic research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has made clear to academic scientists its willingness to adjust normal deadlines for submitting grant applications and scheduled research reports, and to delay work involving human subjects.

“We will do everything we can to be accommodating,” Michael Lauer, the top NIH official in charge of grant awards, said in a video message to researchers about the new coronavirus' impact on the research landscape. Peer review processes will continue, but through remote meetings, said Dr Lauer, the NIH’s deputy director for extramural research. 

The National Science Foundation is being similarly flexible, said Julie Messersmith, the executive director for research at Johns Hopkins. The US Department of Defense has been more rigid in its approach, Ms Messersmith said.

Other than some limited exceptions such as certain cancer trials, Dr Wirtz said, almost all lab-based activity at Johns Hopkins is ending for now. “Only really Covid-19 research will be proceeding.”

And within the few labs still functioning, staffing is being limited to keep people separated at the distances recommended to help avoid transmission of the virus, Dr Wirtz said.

Any decline in productivity across the US academic enterprise could be minimal over the short term, however, because even scientists requiring lab space often have plenty of outside duties that need attention, Dr Wirtz said.

But one critical and overlooked priority area, according to some leading medical experts, is that of whether the national shutdown itself is based on scientific evidence.

John Ioannidis, a professor in disease prevention, and of health research and policy, at Stanford University, has suggested that US policymakers might be guilty of a “once-in-a-century evidence fiasco” if they do not have scientists scrutinise the overall costs and benefits of shutting down large parts of daily life.

Fully testing early assumptions − such as estimates of very high coronavirus mortality rates, the idea that school closings will limit disease spread rather than fuel it and the hope that society will rally rather than melt down − could warrant ending current policy approaches, Dr Ioannidis wrote in an analysis.

Top NIH officials, when asked about the matter, gave no response to the question of whether they support such analyses.

That could prove tragic, said Sandro Galea, the dean of public health at Boston University. “This is a real threat – I’m not minimising that,” Dr Galea said of the coronavirus pandemic. “But our conversation has been a tsunami of deep cultural dive into a particular set of approaches without a nuanced discussion about the uncertainty of the science and the consequences of our actions.”

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