Grape Research Goes on Hold

The COVID-19 pandemic will certainly have far-reaching impacts on the world, including the volume and pace of research and to the scientists whose careers depend on collaborating on, conducting and publishing research.

As states and municipalities issued shelter-in-place orders this month, one by one, industry and academic conferences were canceled. Government agencies and universities closed campuses first to visitors, then to students and non-essential personnel, and finally shuttered labs. They also issued guidance about “essential” research and what experiments could be safely maintained in the context of social distancing, access to personal protective gear and ability to follow safety protocols.

In a survey of communications from the administrators at leading universities with strong viticulture and enology programs, it seems that vital plant populations such as experimental vineyards (and at USDA, germplasm collections) will be maintained through the crisis. It’s important to “retain critical research assets for long-term progress,” as Prasant Mohapatra, Vice Chancellor for Research at UC Davis, put it in his memo, “Reducing On-Campus Research Activities.”

“This is not a shutdown of research at UC Davis,” Dr. Mohapatra writes. “Rather, we hope and expect that much of the research we accomplish during this time period will be conducted remotely and that researchers will shift as much of their work as possible to electronic or other formats that reduce physical contact.” Campus operations there are now suspended and staff density has been reduced to 10-15% of normal operations. Researchers have been asked to ramp down non-critical research, continuing only (as it relates to viticulture and enology) the “maintenance and care of plant populations that are hard to recreate and represent decades of research,” as well as “long-term experiments where there would be considerable cost and/or time associated with requiring the experiment to end prematurely.”

Addressing faculty at Cornell University, Provost Michael Kotlikoff and Vice Provost for Research and Vice President for Technology Transfer, Intellectual Property and Research Policy Emmanuel Giannelis similarly asked “that only those research activities that are absolutely necessary to retain critical research assets for long-term progress are conducted on campus,” including care for plant specimens. They added, “We encourage you to focus on research activities that can be completed remotely (e.g., writing papers and proposals, analyzing data, running computations and developing computational or analytic methods).”

In a “conduct of research”┬ámemo to staff and students, Washington State University Interim Provost and Executive Vice President Bryan K. Slinker and Vice President for Research Christopher J. Keane stressed that, “WSU is not closed; all research currently being conducted via telework should continue; and all research that can be safely conducted should continue.” They also outline essential activities to include “laboratory or field research where immediate discontinuation would generate significant data and sample loss, or significant harm to the long-term WSU research enterprise. This includes work focused on preserving key plant, tissue, cell-line, environmental or other samples.”

In all cases, the guidance from university administrators has been to not initiate new non-essential research.

Across the board, scientists were scrambling mid-month to bottle research wines ahead of schedule and collect plant tissue samples they could analyze remotely. Fortunately, it seems that the salaries and stipends for staff, students and postdocs that rely on grant funding will continue as usual. But professors who have advisory responsibilities also expressed concern for their students. WSU explicitly called out “research that is essential to support students planning to graduate this spring” as necessary. But most feel the disruption in regular research activity could impact graduate students’ ability to successfully complete their degrees.

Could there be any silver lining in the pandemic for scientists? Maybe. We could see a host of new papers detailing the research scientists never had the time to write up. Plus, the journal Nature observes that, with the cancellation of conferences, researchers are finding alternative ways to share their work and interact with collaborators. The shift could make meetings more accessible to a wider set of scientists, including those from resource-poor universities and others with disabilities. And without travel to traditional in-person meetings, it could reduce the academic community’s carbon footprint. And POLITICO polled 34 “big thinkers” about how the crisis could “reorder society.” Among the predictions are “science reigns again,” “a return to faith in experts” and “revived trust in institutions.”

We can only hope.