Abdallah, Campus Leaders Host Research Enterprise Town Hall
On Wednesday, April 22, more than 850 faculty, researchers, and staff from Georgia Tech and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) tuned in to a virtual town hall to hear updates and participate in a Q&A session. Chaouki Abdallah, executive vice president for Research, led the town hall, supported by several campus leaders, including Rafael L. Bras, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs; Raheem Beyah, vice president for Interdisciplinary Research and Motorola Foundation Professor; Robert Butera, vice president for Research Operations; Jilda Garton, vice president for Research and general manager of Georgia Tech Research Corporation and the Georgia Tech Applied Research Corporation; James Hudgens, senior vice president of the Institute and director of GTRI; and Chris Jones, professor and William R. McLain Chair in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering;
“The research enterprise at Georgia Tech is humming,” Abdallah began. “We ramped down many of the activities that had to be done physically on campus, but overall, we’re doing well. We have pivoted a lot of our work toward COVID-19 mediation efforts,” he says. “We have a lot of people engaged right now in helping to address this crisis. I really appreciate everything that the Georgia Tech research enterprise has been able to do. It’s been incredible.”
Abdallah highlighted the research activities of teams working to support Georgia’s state testing initiative, as well as teams making face shields and designing low-cost ventilators and new cleaning solutions. Researchers at Tech are also creating apps to assist in contact tracing. (Further information on the work Georgia Tech researchers are doing to contribute to the fight against COVID-19 is available at helpingstories.gatech.edu.)
Still, Abdallah cautioned, the financial situation is uncertain, adding, “We will have to make some very tough decisions.” State budgets across the U.S. are falling short, some by as much as 10%. If the state of Georgia follows that pattern, it could mean a loss for Georgia Tech as well. In addition, the Institute has given back nearly $55 million in fees and services as a result of the campus shutdown. Another significant financial hit could come if international students are unable to obtain visas to return.
While these financial issues will likely mean significant changes for much of the research enterprise, some groups will be less affected than others. The Georgia Tech Research Institute and other research groups supported by grants and contracts are expected to continue work without interruption of funding for now.
Executive leadership is looking at the situation very carefully, Abdallah said. “We are going to scrutinize all new hires and new expenditures, with the exception of those supported by grants and contracts.”
Before moving on to the question-and-answer portion of the town hall, Abdallah put out a call for experts in public policy and communications, as well as those engaged in research on how to restart businesses and large organizations. He asked the research community to help by suggesting individuals who might be called on to engage with Georgia Tech’s research recovery task force. The task force is led by Chris Jones.
Research Enterprise Q&A
Leadership fielded questions from viewers submitted in real time during the town hall. Here is a sampling. The complete recording of the town hall is available here.
Question: Will the University System of Georgia (USG) decide when we return to campus, or will that decision be made independently by Georgia Tech?
Chaouki Abdallah: Discussions as to when and how to reopen safely are currently happening between Georgia Tech and USG, especially in light of what our governor has said. Right now, neither Georgia Tech nor USG has a set date for reopening. Our goal is to be prepared to discuss and advocate for Georgia Tech’s best interests when a date is known.
Question: Will the Institute have a “soft” reopening, where we ramp up to fully staffed operations in stages, or will we reopen all at once?
Chris Jones: We will not reopen the research activities all at once; our approach will be done in stages. First and foremost, we are concerned for the safety of our faculty, staff, and students. At present, we are considering a number of options to mitigate the risk for people returning to research labs. To reduce worker density, we are considering having people stagger their work schedules, do the bulk of their work at home, come back part-time, or work in shifts, which may also help some workers address childcare and other issues. We will also be determining how best to disinfect surfaces, provide PPE to our workers, and monitor any exposure on campus, using temperature monitoring, contact tracing, and testing.
Question: Will there be flexible or remote options for workers as we ease back into work?
Chaouki Abdallah: We understand that we are reopening into a totally new environment. I agree that options and accommodations need to be available, and this is what I would push for and advocate for. We will be considering people’s circumstances as we decide how to move forward.
Question: Will there be accommodations for those in vulnerable populations?
Chris Jones: We’re asking unit heads to work with their groups to understand who urgently needs to return and who is vulnerable. We are urging them to accommodate those in vulnerable populations and expect that these will be worked out on a case-by-case basis. Those who are in vulnerable populations may need to be working from home and they will have to consider whether or not that fits with their job duties.
Question: Is there any guarantee that budget shortfalls will not result in higher student fees?
Rafael Bras: The Board of Regents has already frozen tuition and fees for the summer and next year.
Question: What is the status of the EVPR COVID Rapid Response Seed Grant Program?
Robert Butera: We were deluged with applications. The reviews are now complete. Five of those awards went out on April 20 and another 15 came out the following week.
Question: What is the current status of the “Small Bets” Seed Grant Initiative?
Robert Butera: We have a reduced budget and are funding the initiative from non-state sources. We have begun to contact PI’s and make awards. There will be a public announcement forthcoming. There were about 200 submissions; at least 21 to date have been funded, and I suspect that number may creep up.
In closing, Abdallah extended his thanks to the research community and encouraged those interested in supporting the efforts of the administration as they consider how to reopen the Institute. “This community has risen to the occasion. Your efforts are supporting the Institute, the state, the nation, and the world.”
Frequently Asked Questions Describe Planning Underway for Ramp-Up of the Research Enterprise
The research recovery task force will begin by modeling different possible scenarios and will coordinate the actions of different units within federal, state, and University System of Georgia guidelines. A RESEARCH RAMP-UP PAGE has been established for frequently asked questions concerning the ramp-up of Georgia Tech's research enterprise.