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Steps Toward Reopening Research Facilities

Dear Members of the Harvard Faculty,

In my letter from a week ago, I discussed planning and preparations for the fall semester, emphasizing the continuity of the University’s educational mission. There can be no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed how we approach teaching and learning. It has had a profound effect on our research activities as well. The closure of campus to all but essential functions was necessary to protect the health of our community, but as a result many areas of research have slowed or even ground to a halt. To enable our faculty and other researchers to resume their vital work, working with public officials we intend to re-establish access to our research facilities as rapidly as health and safety considerations permit.

To be sure, the disruption of research activities has not been universal. Indeed, with flexibility, resourcefulness, and determination, the Harvard community has overcome many obstacles as research has continued despite the closure of campus. After spring break, while courses were taught remotely, researchers continued to write papers, books, and grant proposals, and journals continued to publish. The ongoing productivity is impressive.

A number of disciplines make extensive use of technologies like cloud-based computation and materials and equipment available to them at home, including digital materials available through the libraries and museums. This work has continued despite the lack of access to campus. Some areas of research have even thrived. Exempted from the general laboratory closures, COVID-19-related research at Harvard has led to a deeper understanding of the coronavirus and the immune response it provokes; to insights into its epidemiology and transmission control strategies, as well as economic, sociological, and policy consequences; and to novel approaches to diagnosing and managing the disease it causes.

Despite the success of many of these efforts, a broad swath of research activities will not advance until on-campus work resumes. If research facilities remain closed, the progress of laboratory-based investigation, research that depends on physical access to the archives and other printed materials, and work that relies on direct examination of objects such as paintings, drawings, and sculptures, will be impeded. Lost research productivity is not only a problem for faculty; the academic progress of graduate students and the careers of postdoctoral fellows are also threatened by a lack of access to laboratories, libraries with their archives, museums, and other scholarly resources.

As urgent as it is to reopen these facilities, we will do so only in a manner and time frame that is compatible with our obligation to protect the health of our community and those with whom we come in contact, and with state and local orders and advisories. Fortunately, our research facilities are well positioned to implement the measures that will be needed to prevent the spread of infection while the COVID-19 outbreak is waning but not completely eliminated. Laboratories are controlled, often restricted-access environments with well-established protocols that can serve as a foundation for measures to enable a safe resumption of the work conducted there. We can build on the experience of the laboratories dedicated to COVID-19 research that have continued to operate safely during the pandemic, along with the experience of laboratories in our affiliated institutes and hospitals, as well as other institutions, that have resumed work.

At my request, Vice Provost for Research Rick McCullough, in close collaboration with FAS Dean of Science Chris Stubbs, has formed a committee to develop a phased approach for the resumption of laboratory-based research. Again, as in all our planning efforts, health and safety will be the first priority. We will coordinate with state and local leaders charged with the responsibility to determine how to reopen sectors of the economy safely. Harvard’s Lab Reopening Planning Committee will formulate protocols for testing and personal protection, standards for the density of research and lab spaces, and guidelines for physical modifications of research spaces to impede the spread of infection. The Committee is composed of faculty and staff, along with outside experts. It will base its decisions in data and draw on insights from epidemiology, engineering, medicine, laboratory science, decision sciences, and ethics and the law. With the committee’s guidance, we will monitor the success of the phased reopening and be prepared to make changes as dictated by health and safety issues.

Preparation is also underway for the phased resumption of research access to Harvard’s libraries and museums. Staff need to return to these facilities to be able to provide the full complement of virtual research services and to satisfy requests for physical materials needed for scholarship. As in the laboratories, health and safety is of paramount importance, so infection control measures will be adapted for the distinctive features of libraries and museums. At my request, Martha Whitehead, Vice President for the Harvard Library and University Librarian, and Martha Tedeschi, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of Harvard Art Museums, are working with their faculty and staff partners across the University to develop plans to re-establish on-campus core services supporting research, teaching and learning.

We will issue regular communications and solicit your thoughts and advice as the University works to restore access to facilities that are needed to resume our full range of research activities.


Alan M. Garber AB ’77, PhD ’82, MD
Harvard University