Pandemic upends University of Michigan research operations

Wednesday, December 2, 2020 - 8:13pm

Researchers work in a lab on campus prior to the pandemic.

Researchers work in a lab on campus prior to the pandemic. Buy this photo
Ruchita Iyer/Daily

Jason Owen-Smith, executive director of the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science, gave a talk Wednesday on the severe effects of COVID-19 on university research operations and funding. 

Owen-Smith began the seminar by discussing the significance of universities’ research.

“Universities are a form of social insurance for an unknown future,” Owen-Smith said. 

The pandemic has upended research at the University of Michigan. Much of the research that was once being conducted has been put on hold or defunded. Owen-Smith noted the story of Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who invented the initial software for Google during their time in school. The next question was how to recreate this success story with an increased number of academic inquiries and projects. 

“If we want to support the creation of more Google-like successes, what do we do?” Owen-Smith asked. 

His answer: research grants. 

“What grants do is enable work,” Owen-Smith said. “They allow people like us, investigators, to tool up and hire the people and buy the stuff and get the work we proposed done.”

Owen-Smith said research grants directly fund some of the world’s up and coming discoveries, each of which have a unique impact on society.

A prime example of this occurred at the University in a study conducted by two professors at the School of Kinesiology. 

According to Owen-Smith, the study found that training on a treadmill helps infants with Down Syndrome walk earlier than expected. 

Owen-Smith emphasized the significance of creative research and problem solving, some of which he said has been lost amid the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic stresses all aspects of the University budget system,” Owen-Smith said. “This means that what is typically a sort of creative abrasion between different missions and approaches and academic disciplines and all of the things that make universities wonderful and complicated places, are more likely to become destructive and zero-sum because we are removing flexibility from the organizational system as COVID progresses.”

COVID-related losses directly impact the capabilities of research and the availability of grants. Though salary flexibility allowed for grants to continue to pay researchers for a few months, research and its availability is not what it once was, Owen-Smith said.

“The challenge is that as the pandemic dragged on, more and more research was shut down and by the time that flexibility expired at the end of July, there was a distinct possibility that an entire year’s worth of grants were facing a six-month budget shortfall due to having paid salaries for people that could not complete the work they sought out to,” Owen-Smith said. 

At the onset of the pandemic in March, the University’s nonessential research enterprise was largely “ramped down” in order to promote social distancing. Throughout the summer, the University slowly increased in-person lab activity. However, Washtenaw County Health Department’s October stay-in-place order threw a wrench in those plans, putting an end to all in-person research for all undergraduates besides seniors who requested an exception in the case of a thesis project or requirements for specific coursework.

LSA freshman Lior Latimer, a member of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, said she was disappointed to have to do all her research remotely this semester.

“I pictured that I would be working in a lab with a professor and some other students. However, instead, I complete all my research remotely,” Latimer said. “Although I feel that the research I am conducting has still been a valuable experience, I am definitely missing out on many important aspects of research.”

Daily Staff Reporter Emily Blumberg can be reached at emilybl@umich.edu.


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