Coronavirus and research: Closed labs, empty fields and major worries

By Jenna Gallegos

April 16, 2020

While workers and businesses the world over hope for a return to normal in coming weeks, many agricultural scientists fear that a whole year or more of research will be lost to the coronavirus outbreak.

Even in the face of a pandemic, crops still must be tended, livestock must be fed and growing seasons are, well, seasonal. Agricultural researchers face the same commitments and constraints as farmers, but their activities are not considered essential.  As a result, labs across the globe are shutting their doors. For scientists, this means a great deal of uncertainty about their ongoing work, their students and staff and the future of agricultural research.

Does social distancing apply to fieldwork?

In theory, it would be possible to tend a field while practicing social distancing. Fields are large. Workers could spread out. In practice, however, that’s not what’s happening.

In the United States, many of the agricultural test fields managed by university scientists are located on campus-owned grounds, as are the storage areas for farming equipment and seeds. Those facilities are off-limits during statewide shutdowns, and nobody knows how long these restrictions will remain in place. Even in places where stay-at-home orders have not been enacted, the uncertainty that surrounds the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing researchers to think carefully before beginning new experiments or planting field trials.

To make matters worse, some US government scientists are still recovering from the three-week federal shutdown that halted their research last year. “Just a little over a year ago I had to destroy about three months of research,” said US Department of Agriculture researcher Kimberly Webb.  “Today I just had to do the same thing… I’m heartbroken.”

Anxiety about animals, large and small

There have been a few gripping stories written about how the animals of the research world are faring during the pandemic — microbial cultures are being cryogenically frozen, endangered turtles relocated to garages and fish released back to their native waterways. But you can’t cryogenically freeze a cow, nor can you house it in your garage or release it to the wild.

Fortunately, staff are still caring for the large animals, but spring is breeding season, which means that shutting down for a few months will delay research for a full year. There are also costs associated with caring for livestock during the shutdown that have to be covered by limited grant funds, even when research isn’t moving foreword.

Livestock aren’t the only animals agricultural researchers have to worry about. Elizabeth Njuguna, a biotechnologist in South Africa, studies the fall armyworm, an invasive species that destroys corn crops across Africa. In order to develop a biopesticide to control the pest, they have to first keep it alive to study it, a task that is frustratingly easy in the field, but laborious in the lab. Tending fall armyworms requires daily monitoring of the larvae, pupa and moth, as well as egg harvesting and sterilization for the next cycle.

Njuguna’s team has had to create a makeshift station for tending the colonies on a bench at a campus separate from their normal fall armyworm nursery and move several worms to the fridge to slow their growth. As for feed, a colleague is growing them maize seedlings in his garden. Njuguna is unsure how long the colony can be maintained in this state.

Soft money during hard times

Many graduate students, postdocs and staff researchers are paid with grant money, and grants have an expiration date. Without knowing how bad the outbreak is going to get or how long it will last, researchers are uncertain about which projects to continue or how to spread out their limited resources.

“Right now I have absolutely no idea what the impact will be,” said Andrew Kniss, a weed scientist at the University of Wyoming. “We’re still hoping to conduct field studies and are modifying plans accordingly. But we may have to abandon some or all of it as the season progresses.

“Part of me wants to simply cancel all plans — that would provide some certainty,” Kniss added. “But my students and soft-funded employees depend on funding for those projects for their paychecks, tuition, health insurance, etc. If we just stop, I may not be able to pay them.”

Even if the work that grant money is meant to support has largely stopped, researchers still have to pay to “keep the lights on” in their shuttered labs. There is a cost to maintaining growth chamber and greenhouse spaces — even if they’re empty. In labs that are lucky enough to have one or two university employees keeping their experiments alive, those workers still have to be paid.

When lab families are separated

Despite having to put their work on hold, the majority of the academic scientists contacted by the Alliance for Science are most concerned about their students.

“Our fantastic undergraduates who were working on senior thesis projects will not be able to wrap up their research before they graduate,” said Allie Gaudinier, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “I hope this will not have a negative impact on their interest to pursue research in the future.”

“We have a cohort of undergraduates that have been essential and are going to graduate without saying goodbye,” said Daniel Kliebenstein, a plant systems biologist at UC Davis. “The biggest impact to me personally is the lack of random chats with the postdocs, students and undergraduates.”

“From a personal level, I especially feel for every single scientist in my lab and elsewhere who are far from family and alone,” said Siobhan Brady, also a professor at UC Davis.

For many agricultural researchers, the thing they miss most is what others also long for: face-to-face connections with the people who are important to them.