What do fruit flies have to do with your management strategy to sustain momentum in the time of coronavirus? In the context of Covid-19, many things are going dormant: stores, transportation, the economy, but so is science. At least the part of science not related to Covid-19. 

We sometimes forget the micro detail in going dormant. The case of critical scientific lab research is an excellent example, in both the short and long run, of the complexities, the frustrations, the murkiness and ambiguity that we are all caught in. To enforce social distancing, educational institutions are moving online and there is a "work at home" directive for non-essential employees. That's a temporary inconvenience or an upheaval, depending on whom you ask. But there are very serious implications for the conduct of longitudinal research, especially if that research is conducted in a lab setting and relies on the work of undergraduate and graduate students. 

One of my colleagues, who directs such a research lab, has a specific interest in aging--linking prenatal environment to the development of adult chronic disease. Using one variety of a fruit fly, she focuses on how female reproductive health influences newborn and adult health. In a universal sense, her research is very important and could lead to breakthroughs in delaying the aging process and prolonging health. Due to Covid-19, prioritization has become an issue. 

Among the first questions she had to answer: Which part of this big, essential project could be maintained? How could the lab not lose months of work, or still keep the work going? What about competing projects? What research could be maintained?  

She had to determine what she could do with her existing projects. In one case, she was able to freeze her samples; at a later date, the samples will be thawed and reactivated. A second stream of her research involves fruit flies. You can't easily store fruit flies for months at a time; they need to be maintained. It was a relatively easy decision to freeze what could be frozen, but the flies posed a trickier problem. Lucky for them, it was agreed that they could be kept alive. They could be fed, they could reproduce, and basic measures could be taken. Simple maintenance that required minimal activity could continue, but experimentation and manipulation of the genetic code, which demanded a higher level of activity, could not take place. Whatever research she and her students were conducting was essentially stopped.

The second prioritization decision had to do with staffing. Before the crisis, she had not only technicians but also a mix of grad students and undergrads who were working on various projects drawn from the larger work. Now the question is, who can work in the lab? Which students should she choose? Those who are closest to finishing? Those who live nearby? The students can't conduct research beyond taking the basic measures, and a technician assures that the flies are fed and happy.

In a perfect scenario, if everything returned to normal tomorrow, she would need about two to three months to get the lab running at its pre-Covid-19 levels. As the weeks pass, the startup time required to reach former capacity will lengthen. But that is assuming that things stay the same. It assumes that funding from grant agencies stays level, it assumes that there will be a flow of students to work in the lab, it assumes that the costs associated with the lab upkeep and consumables do not increase.

The definition of essential or non-essential in science is ambiguous. Clearly any work on the coronavirus receives, and should receive, priority. Beyond that, the determination of what is critical is especially ambiguous. Who is to say whose expertise is the arbiter? More important, as in the case of science, often relevant findings emerge serendipitously. So, we never know what is being lost or gained by locking down an experiment. 

While this scientific laboratory example may seem removed from the everyday reality of some readers, it touches many of the same issues that face managers working on any project in business. It touches on the decision-making parameters that policy makers must consider.

  • What are the essential activities that must be continued?
  • Who decides what is essential?
  • What criteria and standards go into this decision?
  • How are core maintenance activities sustained?
  • Who is responsible for maintaining the core activities?
  • How do managers deal with the conflict that may emerge over prioritization of issues?
  • What is the plan to bring the critical activities back online?

Like my colleague and her fruit flies, we live in a world in which uncertainty is an understatement. We are, at best, muddling through these events, with the key priority of sustaining the health of all of us and finding a medical solution to Covid-19. In the context of this focus and uncertainty, we also have to deal with the managerial issues that will assure that knowledge is sustained, that core activities are maintained, and that we do not flounder in getting back to business.