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Research restarts at Italian universities

Image: UC Davis College of Engineering [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Laboratories implement strict distancing rules and face extra costs to keep researchers safe

Scientific research at Italian universities resumed on 4 May, after two months of lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Universities are still closed for students and have adopted a range of safety measures to ensure social distancing and to keep staff safe. These include putting research teams on shifts to prevent overcrowding in laboratories, and putting in place emergency plans to deal with a possible second wave of infections.

All teaching activities at Italian universities ceased in the first week of March, followed by research a week later. Institutions struggled to move classes online and were faced with having to finish ongoing experiments and maintain laboratories containing live specimens under lockdown conditions.

“I think the academic system has proven capable of managing two months of remote work,” said Rosario Rizzuto, rector of Università degli Studi di Padova and head of the research commission of the Conference of University Rectors. He told Research Professional News that many research groups lost little or nothing in terms of scientific productivity.

“Not only were we able to keep regular contact with students, offering online classes and exams, but most research groups were able to refocus on tasks that could be managed remotely, such as writing and revising papers,” said Rizzuto. “Now we can finally go back to work in our labs.”

Across Italy, universities have approved safety protocols shared at national level. Along with personal protection, new rules will limit the presence of people in each building and in each room, in order to maintain a distance of at least one metre between workers. However, institutions can impose more stringent measures—Padova opted for a minimum distancing of 1.5 metres.

The extra costs of implementing these measures, however, remain a concern. Rizzuto’s own institution, which has around 7,000 staff members involved in research, is facing additional costs of around €300,000 for necessary protective equipment such as face masks and disinfectant. The worldwide scarcity of such products has made procurement especially difficult and expensive, he said.

According to Rizzuto, such expenses and preparations are necessary to keep research laboratories open for as long as possible, should a second wave of infections hit the country. He hopes the extra cost of such preparedness will be reimbursed by the government.

The University of Padova was at the heart of the infection in Italy but managed to react quickly with a containment strategy based on early testing and isolation. Neighbouring regions such as Piedmont and Lombardy still struggle with coronavirus due to their slower response.

As a result, the rectors of the universities in Lombardy published an open letter on 4 May, the day that research activity resumed, asking for more institutional support and more government funding to help institutions as they reopen. “In order to get out of this crisis, the university cannot be left alone, or be marginalised,” they wrote.

Some institutions decided to wait and see. Italy’s National Research Council (CNR), whose institutes are often hosted within university campuses, decided to delay the reopening of laboratories until 18 May.

“We have worked for a whole month, full time, to design and share guidelines with institute directors, safety experts and representatives of workers, in order to assure safe distance in all contexts, from the laboratory bench to the cafeteria,” said virologist Giovanni Maga, who is on CNR’s emergency team.

The council said it is facing steep additional costs of approximately €1 million to provide personal protective equipment to its researchers until early 2021. So far, no additional government funding to cover this has been provided, Maga said.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe