How will Cornell set clear research reactivation priorities?

Date: June 2020


Dear Deans,

I am a Cornell Ph.D. student and I think that many other Ph.D. students probably share my thinking.

Upon being cleared by NYS to reopen Cornell for research in certain fields, the entire university has been busy working out plans. I would like to thank all those putting their effort in designing protocols for reopening. It is truly appreciated, since who would have been at the forefront to bring our campus back to life?

However, I would like to express my concern for a troubling phenomenon I observed from different PIs. It looks like almost all experimental groups (as they are the type of research groups that had to stop during shutdown) are trying to paint their research work as falling under the four fields cleared for reopening. It is true that all research activities are for the common good of society (essential business) and the research results are potentially useful for national defense. I am wondering how the university leadership will think about this sometimes tangential link.

Do not get me wrong, I am not opposed to reopening Cornell to continue our exciting grad research, and frankly, for my personal interest, I want to get work done and finish my program on time. I guess it’s also true that Cornell might not get approved if we say to the state that we want to bring back more research areas. I just hope this is not intentionally connived that we bring back other research activities under the names of the four critical fields. 

At the center of my concern is we do not know how safe it is to go back even if we have made careful plans. For those places that experienced the outbreak earlier like China and Korea, their university research has not all gone back to normal (well, I mean expected normal level, as the new normal would not be the same as before) and I have already noticed multiple sporadic rises of cases after reopening followed by painful re-shutdown. Again, please do not take my above examples as opposition to reopening, I am more sharing my thoughts as uncertainty still lingers even though we passed the peak of outbreak.

I agree every decision takes some risk, and for legal repercussion, I understand the university will still publicly maintain that current phase of opening plans only allow the aforementioned four research fields. I do not know what to do as I also want to get back to my research project. I am sorry I contradicted myself without a clear argument, but still, hopping onto the shuttle of the four research fields in order to get approved for reopening is, in my view, a little troubling.

Thank you,

Wondering How Cornell Will Set Reactivation Priorities


Dear Wondering How Cornell Will Set Reactivation Priorities:

Thank you for your Ask a Dean question. I appreciate the various, and somewhat-conflicting, feelings you are expressing about the tension between the eagerness to reactivate research on Cornell’s campus and the hesitations regarding public health and individual safety. These are complicated decisions and actions. 

According to the guidelines outlined by the Provost on May 22, research “related to health and disease, agriculture/food, and national defense, and in support of other essential businesses, can begin in a limited manner” after certain conditions are met. Buildings must be cleared for restart, research teams must have appropriate personal protective equipment and have identified suitable operational plan to, etc. Most importantly, individual labs cannot decide for themselves that they are within these limited research areas or that they have met all the other required criteria.

Any research group seeking to resume on-campus activities must develop a detailed proposal and then receive department approval and college approval before research may resume. The guidelines from the research reactivation committee emphasize that “reactivation will be gradual, conducted in stages, and with contingencies in place should a retreat from reactivation become necessary.” Moving too quickly, or too haphazardly, is in no one’s interest because the result could be that all on-campus research would have to be de-activated again.

Appendix 1C of the report outlines the department-level review processes and criteria. Colleges and facilities managers will need to enforce strict six-foot physical distancing requirements between individuals and make sure their reactivation approvals keep within maximum occupancy density for each building (well below 100% occupancy in pre-COVID-19 conditions). Different research groups may be assigned to different shifts during the day to avoid spatial overlap and keep the occupancy densities within limits. Depending on how many research lab reopening proposals they receive associated with a specific building, departments and colleges will need to make judgments about priority research to reactivate.

The Administrative Controls section of the report indicates that research activation proposal review and approval should “prioritize planned activities based on needs of students and postdocs for dissertation and training, due dates of grant deliverables/milestones, data collection to support future proposal submission, and experiments and data needed to finalize or submit manuscripts.” In addition to being within one of the four approved-to-reactivate research areas, departments and colleges reviewing reactivation proposals will need to consider these criteria for prioritization as well.

Also keep in mind that, currently, research reactivation activity on campus is limited to individuals who have been in the Ithaca area for some time. The university will soon post travel behavior guidelines (e.g., quarantine or testing requirements for individuals returning to campus from outside the region). In the meantime, individuals returning to reactivated on-campus research activity will be coming from within the region, where incidence of COVID-19 has been relatively low. As an example, you can find Tompkins County COVID-19 data posted on the health department website; surrounding counties post similar information.

As the research reactivation report affirmed, reactivation requires the health and safety of Cornell students, staff, and faculty to be top priorities and will occur in stages consistent with New York State and local government requirements. Careful decisions will be made about the priorities for which research to reactivate, where, when, and how.

Thank you for sharing your concerns.

Best wishes,


Barbara A. Knuth
Dean of the Graduate School