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National labs are forced to adapt during coronavirus outbreak

18 March 2020

Facilities in the Bay Area are closed to all but essential personnel; labs elsewhere are encouraging telework.

Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory.
The Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory, pictured here from above in 2014, is hosting scientists working on research related to COVID-19. Credit: Argonne National Laboratory via R. Fenner, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Four Department of Energy national laboratories have been forced to all but close their doors after authorities ordered residents of six counties in the San Francisco Bay area to shelter in place due to the coronavirus epidemic. Other labs are restricting or barring visitors, and some, though not all, are sending most of their staffs home to telework.

As of 17 March, there were no reported cases of COVID-19 in the DOE labs complex.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), the California campus of Sandia National Laboratories, and SLAC each announced closures beginning on 17 March. Exceptions were made for personnel deemed critical or essential. Sandia California employees who aren’t able to work from home due to factors such as the handling of classified material or the lack of appropriate equipment were instructed to indicate “Inclement Weather” on their time sheets until receiving further guidance.

In a 16 March all-staff memo, LBNL director Michael Witherell said that the lab would “stand down” operations, reducing staffing to “the minimum number of people needed for critical research, infrastructure, and systems continuity.” Just one day prior to the shelter-in-place order, Witherell had said that LBNL remained a working laboratory and that employees “who can continue to contribute to the lab’s mission safely are expected to do so.”

Under the shelter-in-place order, the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), a basic-research user facility housed at LBNL, is designated as an essential business. It will remain in operation but with the majority of NERSC staff working remotely and only a skeleton crew on site. Witherell said the NERSC and other LBNL user facilities may be called on to help with COVID-19 research. But work on the lab’s Advanced Light Source synchrotron is reportedly suspended.

Lawrence Livermore director William Goldstein said in an all-staff memo that the lab was reducing personnel to “a minimum number necessary to ensure the safety and security of the site and its facilities, as well as to carry out a very limited number of mission-critical activities.” A spokesperson said the lab’s National Ignition Facility will suspend experiments and that those who work with classified material are taking authorized leave. The spokesperson could not provide an estimate for how many of Livermore’s 6300 staff members aren’t able to work from home.

Outside California, Los Alamos National Laboratory has implemented a “liberal work-from-home policy” that encourages but doesn’t require staff to work from home, a lab spokesperson says. The lab’s policy is “closely aligned” with guidance from DOE and the agency’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, the spokesperson adds.

Employees of Sandia’s main facility, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were also told to work from home “as much as their job allows” for at least the next three weeks, or until management provides updated guidance. The three weapons labs, and Sandia in particular, are working on modernization programs for four types of nuclear weapons.

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), in New Jersey, was the first DOE facility to announce a shutdown, sending most of its 500-plus employees home to telework on 13 March. PPPL director Steve Cowley said in a statement that only staff essential “to keep critical operations and experiments going” would be allowed on site. “We will continue to operate the lab remotely; our world-leading research will continue unabated,” he said.

As of 17 March, most other DOE labs remained in operating mode, though most said they had either limited or closed access to visitors. Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago, was restricting site access to employees and turning away patrons of the lab’s user facilities, such as the Advanced Photon Source synchrotron. Exceptions are being made for existing photon source resident users, as well as users collaborating with lab personnel or performing COVID-19 research, a lab spokesperson says

In a statement, the lab touted the photon source and the lab’s supercomputers as having “the scale necessary to tackle this global public health threat.” Researchers are using beamlines to determine the structures of coronavirus proteins, hoping to accelerate the development of drug therapies and potential vaccines, according to the lab. Last week DOE issued a request for input on how its facilities, including the Joint Genome Institute and Environmental Molecular Science Lab, could further support research on the virus.

Fellow Chicago-area facility Fermilab also remained open to employees and users. The lab banned all public visitors and encouraged employees to work remotely if they have a telework agreement in place, if their duties do not require an on-site presence, and if they have the approval of their supervisors.

Despite its location close to the COVID-19 hot spot of New York City, Brookhaven National Laboratory, on Long Island, is maintaining mostly normal operations. Visitors are generally excluded, though exceptions are being made for non-Brookhaven users already on site and for nonemployee users and guests who are permanently or semipermanently based at the lab.

At Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, most of the 5200 employees are teleworking, says a spokesperson, allowing the on-site staff to stay a safe distance apart. Foreign visitors are barred, and only those domestic visitors deemed essential are allowed. Researchers have used Oak Ridge’s Summit supercomputer to model molecular interactions between the coronavirus and more than 8000 drug compounds.

Most of the employees of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, located in eastern Washington State, are working from home. A lab spokesperson said some research, including some national security work, is continuing at the lab.

Additional reporting was contributed by the staff of FYI, which is also published by the American Institute of Physics.

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