At Virginia universities, a struggle to define ‘essential’ science

By: - April 8, 2020 12:02 am

Snowy egrets and mallard on eroding marsh near Poplar Island in Talbot County, Md., on May 20, 2010. (Photo by Alicia Pimental/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Since 1955, scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have been trawling the waters of the Chesapeake Bay to find out just what lies beneath the surface.

Croaker, blue catfish, spot, blue crab, the flat brown fish known as the hogchoker — all have passed through the nets of these fishers of knowledge. Over 65 years of data collection, the project, which monitors juvenile numbers as a marker of species abundance, has become the longest continuously running trawl survey in the nation and a vital repository of information for fisheries managers.

Until now.

As states increasingly shut down normal operations to slow the spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, much of the scientific work that forms the foundation of policymaking is also being halted. Some, like VIMS’ Juvenile Fish and Blue Crab Trawl Survey, can cope with a few months of lost data. Others, like shorter-term studies, aren’t so lucky.

“A lot of the organisms that we work with, they are on their own schedules. They aren’t aware that human schedules have had to be put on hold,” said Greg Garman, director of the Rice Rivers Center, the biological field station and “river campus” of Virginia Commonwealth University that sits on the banks of the James River.

“The timing of when those organisms are available for researchers to work on, that hasn’t changed,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of that timing centers on this time of the year.”

What that will mean for agencies like the Virginia Marine Resources Commission that manage fisheries is lost data, holes in long-term datasets and possibly a hold on new decision-making.

“Statistical modelers may try to recreate the missing data by examining data prior to and after the crisis.  Another alternative is to maintain the status quo until the 2021 data is available,” said VMRC Fisheries Management Division Chief Pat Geer in an email.

Ultimately, he said, there’s little the agency or researchers can do to try to complete the work now paused indefinitely.

“I ran the Juvenile Trawl Survey for 14 years and we … always finished the monthly survey no matter what,” he said. “I’m sure that same dedication still exists but delays are usually related to weather or boat issues COVID-19 is something no one ever expected.”

‘No such thing as working solo’

While Hollywood likes to portray scientists as lonely figures, most fieldwork is carried out by teams, or at least duos.

“Nobody does fieldwork alone. There’s no such thing as working solo in the field,” said Garman. 

That, of course, doesn’t mesh well with the social distancing protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nor does laboratory work, which generally occurs in confined spaces full of surfaces and equipment — including computer technology that relies on touchpads to operate — where the highly infectious virus can linger for hours or days.

If one person in a lab contracts COVID-19, that “could close down the whole floor,” said Mark Luckenbach, associate dean of research and advisory service at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a major coastal research center affiliated with William and Mary. 

Those restrictions and risks have left research institutions facing tough choices about whether and how to proceed with studies already underway.

At Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture, “all field research has been suspended,” said Associate Dean and Director of Research Wondi Mersie in an email. Faculty and staff have been told to telework, with only a few “essential” employees remaining at the college’s Randolph Farm to maintain the greenhouses and care for the goats and sheep.

Other institutions, like the Rice Rivers Center and VIMS, are carrying on with work — but with significantly narrowed goals.

“We’re certainly operating on a very reduced scope and scale,” said Garman. “But at least for now we’re able to maintain what are the most critical projects, the most time-sensitive projects, and those that reflect a long-term dataset.”

As the state’s official scientific advisory institution, VIMS in particular has had to carefully weigh what work is worth pursuing during the pandemic.

“Every faculty member thinks all the research they’re doing is critical,” said Luckenbach. “You just have to talk them down and say, ‘It’s really not.’”

Sturgeon fry in the James River. (NBC12 via the Rice Rivers Center)

Defining ‘essential’ research

As the new coronavirus began to spread worldwide, Virginia research institutions began preparing for reductions in their operations, many of which were abruptly curtailed by the decision to send home student bodies.

“A lot of research is done either by or with students, and with those individuals gone, we’re lost capacity,” said Garman.

VIMS, bracing for the worst, sent crews out about three weeks ago to change and update all of the sensors in the water quality monitors the institution operates for the Department of Environmental Quality to cut down on maintenance needs.

And, perhaps most importantly, its leadership began formulating a set of criteria that could be used to determine exactly what work is essential and what can wait. 

Such determinations aren’t easy. Like the Rice Rivers Center and other research institutions nationwide, VIMS carries out a range of public-facing work, from contracts with local and state agencies for efforts such as water quality monitoring to studies funded by grants from federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Many of those efforts have weighty implications for the private sector. Sea level rise studies are used by developers, especially in the threatened Hampton Roads region, to calculate flood risks. Commercial harvest quotas set by fisheries managers are based on survey data gathered by researchers. Farmers rely on agricultural findings from land grant institutions like Virginia State. Oyster stocks bred at VIMS are cultivated by aquaculture operations up and down the coast.

“There are things that we know we can’t do, and there’s things that we can,” said Luckenbach. 

Rational arguments could be made to classify almost any scientific endeavor as “essential.” But ultimately VIMS identified six areas as priorities — among them the maintenance of animals and cultures “of special significance,” time-sensitive work for state agencies and industries, and the processing of “highly valuable” samples that could be ruined if not handled quickly in a laboratory.

“Some things are delayed and won’t start now. Some things are going to get a little behind and people are going to have to scramble when they come back in,” said Luckenbach. “Right now we’re not looking at many things that are just falling apart.”

And what of the 66th year of the juvenile fish and blue crab trawl?

On that, Luckenbach is taking a philosophical view.

“If we happen to be missing April, May and June of one year, it’s unfortunate, but it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “We may not know exactly what the juvenile abundances are this year, and they can go up and down, but when you’ve got that much data under your belt, you can put some boundaries on it.”

This story has been updated to add comments from VMRC Fisheries Management Division Chief Pat Geer, and the spelling of Greg Garman’s name has been corrected. We regret the error.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]