A group of prominent academic scientists that has been advising the U.S. government on security matters since the Cold War is conducting a quick-turnaround, pro bono study of a new threat to national security—the impact of COVID-19 on academic research. And this time it’s personal.
Last month, some 30 members of JASON began to tackle the thorny question of how to reopen university laboratories safely in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Nobody is paying for the study, a rare departure for the group, whose work is usually financed by government agencies and often involves classified information. But the study’s leader, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) physicist Peter Fisher, says several federal agencies have expressed interest in the group’s analysis of the technical challenges facing every university that wants to resume research operations without jeopardizing the health of the faculty, students, and staff who work in those labs.
“We’re got teams looking at risk factors, modeling, and good and bad operational strategies,” says Fisher, who is also on a newly formed MIT committee examining what the school needs to do before letting people back into their labs. JASON is examining such issues as the 1.8-meter separation rule, the efficacy of personal protective equipment, and the optimal way to reconfigure work space given how the virus is thought to spread.
“There’s a ton of research out there, and a lot of people sifting through it,” Fisher says. But most of that work is based on studies of other pandemics, he notes, “and some of it is contradictory.”
JASON normally carries out its studies during the summer, when its members can gather at a single location and devote their full attention to a problem. But this problem doesn’t allow for such a leisurely schedule, Fisher notes.
“We all have our day jobs, and many of us are also involved in figuring out how our own campus should be dealing with COVID,” he says. “So we’re just working more hours.”
Fisher hopes the report, due out next month, will help university officials and government agencies that are now drafting policies on reopening.
“Let’s say you go back [to work], and over the next 2 weeks you have three people who test positive,” Fisher posits. “What should you do? Do you close the lab? Reconfigure the HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning]? Keep the windows open? We want to not only analyze the basic science, but we also want to provide technical guidance and rules of thumb that labs can use to operate more safely.”