Monday, September 16, 2013

Research in dangerous times

Research is full of disasters. Some are small – there’s nothing on the gel; someone published it first. Others are larger – ATVers just crushed the plants you were monitoring; you lost your lab notebook. But there are also real disasters – floods, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes.

The university where I am a postdoc, University of Colorado at Boulder, suffered through a 100-year flood this week. Though the university dealt with less water than many other parts of Boulder County, one-quarter of campus buildings have flood damage of some sort, there were power outages and the campus was closed and fairly inaccessible for several days. It sounds like my building got through okay – little to no water got in other than some roof leaks, and the power didn’t even go out. The water crept up into the parking lot, but never made it the rest of the way. But given the extent of the damage, undoubtably some other CU labs weren’t so fortunate. (And many people in Boulder County were not lucky at all).

What this experience reminded me of were the stories I had heard about university laboratories in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The floodwaters there destroyed laboratories, took out research computers and servers, and killed 8000+ research animals in populations at Louisiana State University and Tulane University. This probably represents the loss of years of work and millions of dollars of funding. Data kept on damaged servers were gone. Research is generally so reliant on things we take for granted – like a reliable power source to maintain environmental conditions, and safe locations for irreplaceable data. When campuses are closed down, it may be impossible to reach laboratory populations of species that rely on regular care; routine measurements that may have been occurring for months or more are often disrupted; all the samples stored in a -80°C freezer might thaw out. And these are not uncommon outcomes when disasters hit universities. After Hurricane Sandy, criticisms were levelled at NYU for housing research animal populations in a basement, despite the potential for flooding. As a result, flooding killed thousands of mice, including strains representing a decade of research on forebrain development.

The personal impacts of these kind of losses are the saddest. The loss of months or years of data or experiments can be the nail in the coffin for grad students, who are reliant on time-limited funding as it is. A large enough setback may be the difference between finishing and dropping out for many students. Researchers, especially without tenure, face setbacks that could range between demoralizing and debilitating.

Like it or not, most predictions suggest disasters are going to be more common in the future. Often research labs rely on the disaster preparedness plans of the institution, and don't have specific plans for an individual lab. Every group (individual labs, departments, colleges, the institution as a whole) to some extent should consider disaster management plans. For most ecology labs, the considerations would not even be too onerous – consider how to maintain power to equipment that must remain on (e.g. freezers, experimental gear); ensure data is backed up in more than one physical location; if water damage is a possibility, be careful what you keep in the basement lab. Also, be sure to have contact information (including phone numbers) for all lab members - it's surprising how many labs neglect this - this way you can coordinate and ensure labmates and students are safe. Sometimes, no matter how prepared you are, loss and damage will be unavoidable. But hopefully, you are lucky and all of these preparations will be for nothing.

1 comment:

stone said...

Caroline Tucker, good post. Thanks for sharing.