Keywords: business continuity plan, core facility, COVID-19, emergency response management, research ramp-down, research ramp-up, shared research resource
Shared research resources, also known as core facilities, serve a crucial role in supporting research, training, and other needs for their respective institutions. In response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, all but the most critical laboratory research was halted in many institutions around the world. The Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities conducted 2 surveys to understand and document institutional responses to the COVID-19 pandemic from core facility perspectives. The first survey was focused on initial pandemic response and efforts to sustainably ramp down core facility operations. The second survey, which is the subject of this study, focused on understanding the approaches taken to ramp up core facility operations after these ramp-down procedures. The survey results revealed that many cores remained active during the ramp-down, performing essential COVID-19 research, and had a more coordinated institutional response for ramping up research as a whole. The lessons gained from this survey will be indexed to serve as a resource for the core facility community to understand, plan, and mitigate risk and disruptions in the event of future disasters.
ADDRESS CORRESPONDENCE TO: Joshua Z. Rappoport, Research Infrastructure and Operations, Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467 (Phone: 617-552-0953; E-mail: [email protected]).
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: The authors declare no conflicts of interest.
Keywords: business continuity plan, core facility, COVID-19, emergency response management, research ramp-down, research ramp-up, shared research resource
In December 2019, a viral outbreak of pneumonia of unknown origin occurred in Wuhan, China. On January 9, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially announced a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and the pathogen responsible for the infectious respiratory disease, coronavirus disease (COVID-19)., ,  During the early phases of the SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 pandemic, research activities at many institutions were vastly reduced; while many institutions completely paused all research, including operation of core facilities, others chose to permit some work to continue, often for studies directly related to the pandemic., ,  Restrictions varied depending on the type of work, specific institution, and geographical location. As detailed in our previous survey and publication, the impact of research ramp-downs on core facilities was widespread and complex. Eventually, research activities at many institutions began to ramp up. Although the research ramp-down was in many cases abrupt and occurred without ample time for planning, the return to research was considerably more deliberate and well coordinated.
Core facilities largely represent the engine of modern biomedical research and serve a critical role in enabling research efforts and advances in nearly all disciplines., ,  The organization, size, and scale of core facilities range widely, as do operational models and areas of technological specialization. The colocation of highly specialized instrumentation and expertise into open-access service centers is unique within the research environment to core facilities, and it provides researchers with access, training, and support in technical areas not commonly found within individual laboratories., Thus, core facility infrastructure and the professional scientists that staff and manage these laboratories have evolved into essential parts of the research landscape.
Stresses on the research environment outside of the core facility domain, such as those presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, impeded operations and negatively impacted delivery of services to stakeholders across the research continuum. It is thus essential to understand how core facilities respond in times of crisis, not only for continuity of operations but also to inform approaches and strategies to plan, position, and mitigate risk from future disruptions. Careful planning and positioning of core facilities to withstand and strategically respond to such crises will increase their contributions as well as ensure maximum output and impact to their various stakeholders, which will further validate their critical role in the research enterprise.
In addition to technical knowledge and practical expertise, research core facility scientists and administrators serve as broad reservoirs for institutional knowledge across scientific disciplines, research infrastructure, operations, and logistics, and they have dedicated administration at the intersection of the administrative, financial, and scientific sectors of academic and research organizations.,,  Thus, one lasting benefit of the experiences of 2020 for the future may be an integration of research core facilities more broadly into institutional strategic planning. We hope the results provided and discussed in this study will effectively provide evidence to the benefits and importance of research core facility personnel throughout all facets of the research enterprise beyond times of global crisis.
The Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities (ABRF) conducted 2 surveys to understand institutional responses to the COVID-19 pandemic from a core facility perspective. The first survey was completed in early 2020 at the beginning of the institutional ramp-down procedures and captured core facilities’ responses to these pandemic response measures. The current study (Part 2) is a continuation of the survey to understand and document the many approaches to research ramp-up processes following institutional ramp-down, with the goal of creating a resource that could be used for continuity planning for core laboratories to mitigate and manage risk from future crises as well as highlight important lessons learned and new ways of doing business that can be incorporated moving forward.
The ABRF Core Administrators Network Coordinating Committee created a web-based survey in Qualtrics, building on topics derived from the previous ramp-down survey but with specific emphasis on research ramp-up processes and decision-making. The survey was shared via email distributions to members of the ABRF and Core Technologies in Life Sciences, and it was further distributed by members of both groups through concerted network outreach (see Supplemental Fig. S1).
The survey contained 40 multiple-choice and open-ended text entry questions (see Supplementary Materials) capturing 3 major themes: (1) research ramp-down approaches and initial pandemic response (7 questions); (2) research ramp-up approaches and implications, outcomes, and impact of actions taken (21 questions); and (3) demographics of respondents (12 questions). The majority of questions in the survey were closed questions with respondents having to choose the most applicable options to them. For some questions, the answer choices were exclusive, whereas for other questions, the respondent could select all that apply. There were, however, 4 open-ended questions, which sought to understand the most important challenges encountered by respondents in light of the current crisis and to identify potential opportunities or changes that they believe may impact research beyond the immediate pandemic response. Survey responses were collected for approximately 2 weeks, at the end of summer 2020 (August 17–31, 2020). All survey responses remained anonymized. The complete survey questionnaire and anonymized, un-tabulated responses can be found in Supplemental Figs. S1 and S2, respectively.
Results from the multiple-choice questions were calculated by tabulating the number of responses for each element for a given question. The open-ended text questions were evaluated by first conducting an inductive content analysis of the text to categorize the responses, and key trends were identified across those responses. The authors discussed discrepancies and reviewed differences to determine if consensus could be reached. Results reflect the counts of responses in each category.
A total of 160 respondents from 21 countries and 4 continents completed the survey (data not shown). Survey responses came from heterogeneous geographical locations, institution types, and core technology areas, representing a wide variety of experiences, approaches, and perspectives. Several common themes emerged, which highlight the successes and limitations of response to the pandemic and aid in further characterizing the crucial role of research core facilities in the biomedical research enterprise. Participant demographics are included in the last section.
The first 7 survey questions queried the extent and duration of core facility ramp-down activities, decision-making approaches, the impact of local shelter-in-place orders, research activities (if any) permitted during ramp-down, and key takeaways by the respondents. The high degree of similarity between the responses in this portion and those collected during the Part 1 survey reinforce the conclusion that the initial surge of the pandemic greatly altered core facility operations across the survey population, with the diversity of ramp-down procedures varying in initiation, duration, and level of activity reflecting the range of institutional responses to the initial phase of the pandemic (Fig. 1).
The survey results confirmed that nearly all institutions were impacted by COVID-19. Although nearly all participants reported disruption of on-site activities, 30% of survey respondents reported a complete ramp-down (Fig. 1A). The duration of the ramp-down ranged across the options provided, from 5 weeks to remaining closed at the time of the survey more than 4 months later (Fig. 1B). Half of respondents stated that their core facilities were ramped down for 5–10 weeks, by far the largest proportion of the total responses. Less than 25% were ramped down for 0–4 weeks or never shut down, whereas over 75% were ramped down for 5–10 weeks or longer, including those still ramped down at the time of the survey. It was interesting to note that 14% of respondents stated their research core facilities were never “shut-down.” However, the terminology used in this question was somewhat different than that employed in Fig. 1, suggesting that there may have been some confusion between the alternative usages of being “completely” ramped down versus “shut down” (Fig. 1B). Sixty-one percent of respondents stated that their core facility ramp-down timing matched the onset of local shelter-in-place orders (Fig. 1C), whereas in 21% of cases, the ramp-down preceded the start of shelter-in-place orders, and the remainder was split between the other options.
Although there was a wide range of levels at which decisions regarding ramp-down processes were made, the most common response by far (76%) indicated senior institutional leadership was responsible for overall institutional response coordination (Fig. 2A). A similar number of respondents (40–50%) stated that institutional bodies such as emergency management groups, academic leadership, or research core facility administration were involved in the decision-making process. The next most common answer was that core facilities themselves were responsible (30%). Perhaps not surprisingly, the responses to the question on decision-making for ramping up research activities were nearly identical in trend to those for ramp-down planning (Fig. 2B). In both cases, the majority of respondents stated that senior institutional leadership was responsible for decision-making and coordination. Although core facility management, core facility administration, academic leadership, and institutional emergency management groups were all involved in ramp-up planning—largely to a similar degree as in the case of ramp-down—emergency management groups were somewhat more likely to be involved in ramp-up than was reported for ramp-down (56% versus 47%), as were core facility management (41% versus 30%). This could reflect an evolution of institutional and research core facility specific processes that developed after the ramp-down, potentially because of the somewhat sudden nature of the ramp-down, with greater time available for planning for the ramp-up.
As shown in Fig. 2C, when queried if operating plans were required for onsite activities during ramp-down, the largest proportion of survey respondents (~40%) stated that research core facility managers were responsible for generating operating plans for any onsite activities taking place during the ramp-down period, followed by core facility administration (33%) and institutional emergency management groups, senior institutional administration, or academic leadership (20–25% each). Responses reflected that these operating plans were generally created in partnership with the institution. Only 9% of respondents stated that operation plans were actually not required. Not surprisingly, core facility advisory committees were generally not responsible for developing operating plans (Fig. 2C).
The majority of respondents (78%) reported that core facility staff were involved in planning the transition from ramp-down to ramp-up (data not shown). As shown in Fig. 3A, the most common level at which respondents contributed was for a single core, whereas it was much less common for respondents to contribute at an institutional level. This shows that although core facility staff might not have as much input at an institutional level, they were involved in planning for a return to operations in their own core facility.
Although almost 60% of respondents stated that their ramp-up planning occurred prior to the lifting of local shelter-in-place orders (Fig. 3B), only approximately 20% said ramp-up planning coincided with the end of shelter-in-place orders. Although planning for ramp-up generally occurred prior to the lifting of local shelter-in-place orders, the timing of the actual enactment of these plans was somewhat less consistent. As shown in Fig. 3C, 26% of respondents stated that ramp-up began prior to lifting of local shelter-in-place orders, potentially owing to the “essential worker” status of some in the research community; 33% of respondents stated that ramp-up coincided with the lifting of local shelter-in-place orders; and 29% reported it occurred afterward. Thus, the timing of ramp-up planning (Fig. 3B) generally occurred prior to the lifting of shelter-in-place orders, whereas the timing of enactment of these ramp-up plans was significantly more variable (Fig. 3C). This contrasts with the ramp-down process, which largely corresponded with the onset of shelter-in-place orders (Fig. 1C), likely because of the somewhat sudden and relatively unexpected nature of early phases of the impacts of the pandemic compared with the greater ability to plan for return to research.
The importance of different types of guidelines/decisions on the planning and timing (Fig. 3C) of research ramp-up was roughly consistent. In both cases, the university/institutional guidelines/decisions were the most important, whereas those at the level of the core facility program were least important. Consistent with this was the information that only 16% of institutions employed a single plan across the whole core facility program (data not shown). Thus, generally speaking, core facility programs seem to have been included as part of overall university planning rather than as stand-alone entities.
The vast majority of respondents (88%) stated that their institutions were following a phased reopening plan, which allowed for flexibility across the institution (data not shown). Occupancy limits in core facilities were quite variable. As shown in Fig. 4A, the highest proportion of respondents operated with 25%–49% occupancy limitations, whereas 28% reported they were restricted to less than 25% occupancy. Only 16% of respondents stated that occupancy levels above 50% were permitted.
As detailed in Fig. 4, without exception, all survey respondents implemented COVID-19 specific safety protocols to meet pandemic institutional return-to-work guidelines. The vast majority of respondents included the following in the return-to-work guidelines: health status self-reporting (82%), guidelines for reporting infections (79%), and travel restrictions (71%). Only 21% of respondents included COVID-19 testing, and very few (6%) reported use of serology testing for antibodies against the virus (Fig. 4B).
Over 90% of respondents mandated physical distancing, face coverings, and hand washing/sanitizing in their core facility ramp-up plans (Fig. 4C). Approximately 70% of respondents included the following in their core facility ramp-up plans: working in shifts, gloves, and frequent extra/deep-cleaning. Only 24% of respondents included eye coverings in their plans. As shown in Fig. 4D, the responsibility for personal protective equipment (PPE) sourcing was quite diverse, with 51% stating it was up to each individual core facility, 43% stating this was handled institution wide, another 26% stating this was campus wide, and 31% delegating this to core facility users. Ten percent of respondents stated that PPE was provided by all core facilities in a department or in a school, institute, center, or college, respectively.
As shown in Fig. 4E, core facility directors were most frequently charged with enforcing ramp-up policies (62%), whereas 49% included other core facility staff, and 44% reported all members of the research community. Approximately 30% of respondents stated that either department chairs, deans, or Environmental Health and Safety personnel were responsible, and 14% reported that security/law enforcement was involved. Finally, the vast majority of respondents (93%) felt that ramp-up planning worked well once implemented (data not shown), albeit with some refinement or fine tuning.
As core facilities rely on support from instrument, reagent, and consumables suppliers, an area of great concern for many core facilities during the ramp-up phase was the restrictions imposed by institutions to outside visitors and the potential impact on vendor access. As shown in Fig. 5A, many different types of vendor interactions occurred during the ramp-up, including in-person visits (46%). Respondents (20%–30%) reported a variety of different types of remote and in-person support experiences with vendors, including instrument repair, remote consultation, troubleshooting, or delivery and installation. Only 13% of respondents reported that they required vendor assistance with instrument restart. As a follow up to Part 1, Part 2 queried whether respondents were able to negotiate service contract discounts owing to downtime during the ramp-down. Only 9% of respondents were able to negotiate service contract discounts owing to downtime, whereas 20% stated they were unable, and 54% reported that they did not attempt to renegotiate (Fig. 5B). This reveals a potential missed opportunity for reducing expenses by institutions.
A total of 160 respondents from 21 countries and 4 continents completed the survey (data not shown). The vast majority of respondents (109) stated they were based in the United States, with another 40 respondents based in Europe and a few from Canada and Asia (data not shown). A total of 75% of respondents stated that they either worked at a university (54%) or medical school (21%), with the rest working at different types of research institutes, centers, governmental facilities, or hospitals (data not shown).
The majority (~60%) of respondents stated that they have worked at their institution for 15 or fewer years (Fig. 6A). The largest proportion of respondents were core facility directors (48%), followed by managers (31%), administrators (15%), core facility staff or technicians (13%), and faculty and post-docs (11%) (Fig. 6B). The majority of respondents have been in their current positions for 10 or fewer years (Fig 6C).
Fifty-nine percent of respondents were focused on a single core facility, whereas 8%–21% of respondents stated they are responsible for administration of multiple core facilities, ranging from those within a single department to across a multicampus university (Fig. 6D). Survey respondents represented a broad range of technologies and specializations (Fig. 6E); the majority offered their technology and expertise as a combination of service- and reservation-based cores (40%), closely followed by reservation-based cores (33%), and 19% were strictly service-based cores (data not shown).
As shown in Fig. 6F, the majority of respondents (45%) stated their core facilities were organized by the school, research center/institute, or college. Approximately 30% of respondents had core facility administration organized by department or across the whole institution, whereas 23% of core facilities were organized independently. Only 15% of respondents replied that their institution had all core facilities organized under a single multicampus umbrella.
Sixty-six percent of respondents stated their institution uses a core facility management system, whereas 34% do not (data not shown). Of those using a core facility management system, iLab was the most commonly employed (47%),;the remainder included options such as custom-built solutions (23%) and Stratocore (11%) (data not shown).
On or near April 1, 2020, higher education institutions globally were either closed or had their activities largely scaled back, impacting 89.4% of students in 185 countries. The biomedical research enterprise was not spared, as lockdowns and severe restrictions on all but essential activities were enacted. In order to better understand the disruption caused by COVID-19 on the research community and to investigate the first-response measures undertaken by the research community, the ABRF published a survey on ramp-down activities in response to this crisis and the impact on core facilities and shared research resources supporting the global research community. Serving as a follow up, the current survey captures both ramp-down and ramp-up activities as institutions restored their campuses and returned to some level of activity. The 4 pillars of an effective COVID-19 strategy—hygiene, distancing, screening, and masks—were clearly embraced and enacted for all survey respondents. Core facilities are often in common-use spaces that promote interdisciplinary collaboration and shared expertise, which inescapably promotes interaction and often requires close physical proximity. Although strict policies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WHO, and other international public health organizations were enacted on a local level, the survey results demonstrated that ramping up core facility operations remains an iterative exercise, dependent on continuous feedback and active engagement, and is also highly institution specific.
Many institutions enacted an incident command structure in response to COVID-19 and had emergency management and resiliency plans, whereas others did not. Acknowledging public and individual health is a shared responsibility; many institutions required a code of conduct for each member to adhere to regarding public health policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Previous large-scale work interruptions, for example, because of regional weather events, helped pave the way for the widespread adoption of business continuity planning in universities and research institutes. Particularly relevant to core facility operations, knowing exactly who to contact in case of an emergency, what resources are essential, and developing procedures for supporting core facility users immediately after a crisis are all essential aspects of any management plan. That being said, the pandemic has provided insights into new components that can be incorporated into business continuity planning, such as aspects of core operations that can be continued remotely, either through working from home or through user support and training provided without direct staff contact. Furthermore, beyond emergency responses, some of these new ways of working will likely enhance productivity and efficiency moving forward, such as the implementation of software tools that facilitate remote user consultations, training, data analysis, and instrument troubleshooting. In addition, improvements in automation, remote desktop access, and content libraries for user training and support that were essential in ramping research back up in the summer and fall of 2020 will likely continue to support core facility operations moving forward.
In summary, what have we gained? Although research productivity declines were attributed to mandated remote status and inefficient work patterns (e.g., physical distancing, shift work, and increased downtime because of cleaning protocols), in reality, the COVID-19 crisis has engendered a rapid shift in research focus and culture. Driven by the necessity of a pragmatic solution to COVID-19, interdisciplinary translational research was the silver lining among departments, across job functions, and between clinicians and research laboratories. Core facilities contributed to strengthening their institution’s resilience through sharing infrastructure, expertise, and a collegial ethos, which, in turn, enhanced the global research community’s significant contributions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Working remotely, successful institutions have built robust information systems that are highly accessible and integrated across multiple workflows in order to create a virtual data hub for an institution’s research portfolio. There have been nearly 144,000 publications on “COVID-19” published since the start of the pandemic. The new global research paradigm of open data sharing, integration of data science tools, and cutting-edge laboratory research enabled by expertise and technologies from our shared resources and core facilities will continue to accelerate progress across disciplines long after the COVID-19 pandemic has been brought under control.
In conclusion, given the logistical, regulatory, and methodological challenges during the pandemic, the research infrastructure provided by core facilities for generating essential research data, such as large-scale viral genome sequencing used to complement and enhance critical epidemiological parameters, further emphasizes the critical nature of infrastructure for future waves of COVID-19 or other pandemics.
The authors gratefully acknowledge Ken Schoppmann for facilitating the ABRF discussions, the ABRF Core Administrators Network Coordinating Committee, and the entire shared research resource scientific community for their contributions to the data collected for this manuscript. S.M.M. is supported by P30 CA016087 Cancer Center Core Support Grant at the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center, NYU Langone Medical Center.