“The bottom line is that we have an opportunity to not just put out the fire, but to rebuild a better system,” Wigginton said.
NASA has responded to the crisis with flexibility, according to Steve Jurczyk, the agency’s associate administrator. “Mission and operations” work like the OSIRIS-REx TAG rehearsal and the SpaceX Crew Dragon launch have continued, with the small percentage of employees required on-site practicing adjusted shifts, wearing personal protective equipment, and using social distancing measures, and the rest of the staff telecommuting. Aside from critical events, most robotic-mission operations work is “lights out,” Jurczyk said. Manufacturing, integration, and testing for missions has been most affected—including temporary shutdowns of several facilities located in or near viral hot spots, like the Michoud Assembly Facility outside of New Orleans.
Telecommuting, already utilized by the staff before the crisis, has become extremely important to the current situation, Jurczyk said; around 90 percent of NASA’s civil servants are currently telecommuting. For missions like OSIRIS-REx, NASA scientists and engineers have been able to complete critical reviews almost entirely from home. The agency’s staff also completed the engineering reviews for the SpaceX Demo 2 mission remotely for the first time, Jurczyk said. “We have always had a debate: How much teleworking is appropriate?” he said. “People who were skeptical before are now saying, ‘Thank goodness we have this policy.’”
Large research and development labs both private and public across the country are weathering the Covid-19 storm, for now—but access to labs has varied greatly by state and region. Washington state, for instance, listed biomedical researchers as essential workers, allowing them to continue to work under special protocols such as strict distance requirements, the use of protective gear, and lowering each lab’s maximum capacity. In states that didn’t, researchers have had to put their experiments on ice for several weeks, or retool their work to intersect with the fight against the disease.
Still, though their sudden shutdown in late March was chaotic, some scientists say that effective communication and fast thinking allowed many long-standing experiments, including fragile, priceless assets like cell lines, to be stored and saved. “Over a two- to three-day period, the tone changed pretty quickly,” said Richie Kohman, the synthetic biology platform lead at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, where researchers study bio-inspired materials for applications in health care, robotics, energy, manufacturing, and more. “Day one was ‘We’re phasing people out of the lab,’ and day three was ‘Everybody out.’”
Kohman, who is now telecommuting from a home he shares with 2-year-old twins and his pregnant wife, has been able to continue his grant writing, emails, and Zoom meetings with relative ease; his research on mapping the entire connectome of a mouse brain is inching forward, since the data for his experiments had already been collected. But he’s been working out of a bedroom closet. “The psychological trajectory has been odd,” he said. “During the first week or two, I was relaxed, clearing my inbox, analyzing data. I was flying.” But then the lack of clear boundaries between lab and home took its toll: a special kind of blurred-lines burnout. “I realized a month had gone by, and I had been on a 31-day shift,” he said.
Things have been notably more tenuous for smaller labs. Molecular biologist Reza Kalhor started his lab (part computational, part molecular and experimental, studying in vivo barcoding) at Johns Hopkins University last October. The scale-up—buying new equipment, recruiting students, managers, and techs—was going well. “I was 10 to 20 percent of the way there” when the Covid-19 crisis flared, he said.
While the computational work is continuing apace from home, all the “wet” or experimental work at Kalhor’s lab has been paused. “This sets us back significantly. When you are a young lab, it’s all about trying to build momentum—get people going, get projects going. Now, we’re going to have to get that momentum back,” he said. Delays like these make new labs look less productive and make it harder for them to attract funding.