The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many aspects of life, including day-to-day science research in the United States and around the world.
At the U.S. Department of Energy, some of our busiest research hubs are the 28 Office of Science user facilities. These facilities house the most advanced tools of modern science, such as supercomputers, accelerators, light sources and neutron sources, and nanoscience laboratories. The user facilities are a tremendous national resource for scientists in government, academia, and industry. In normal times, thousands of scientists visit the facilities in person for days or weeks at a time to use equipment and collaborate with facility staff.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the user facilities reduced in-person visits to limit the spread of the disease. Beginning in spring 2020, each facility canceled, postponed, or altered in-person user experiences and shifted to virtual operations where possible. These safety measures were necessary but presented us with a big challenge. Scientists still needed some access to the facilities for existing research, as well as rapid use of our nation’s top scientific tools in the fight against COVID-19.
In a typical year, each user facility might host visits from hundreds or thousands of scientists. Whether users carry out research on-site and for how long depends on the nature of their work. For example, nanoscale science centers may host users in person so they can directly access laboratory equipment such as microscopes, whereas leadership computing facilities are designed from the start to host users remotely. Additionally, remote users may still visit a facility for workshops, meetings, and other collaborations. A critical part of our user facility communities are students and postdocs, who benefit enormously from being immersed in the research culture of the facilities as part of their career development.
Innovations in virtual operations during the pandemic—such as remote user access and virtual user trainings—allowed staff and users to safely use facility resources. Now, as a community of facility administrators, staff, and users, we are looking back on this unprecedented experience for lessons learned that we might apply to the future. Although facilities are increasing on-site access with safety restrictions in place, we want to keep the positive changes that came out of the pandemic response, such as increased virtual engagement, increased automation, and—in some cases—increased efficiency.
In December 2020, we captured community feedback during a virtual roundtable. A report summarizing the roundtable outcomes is available online. Roundtable participants discussed how the user facilities might enhance efficiency and improve productivity through remote access and virtual interactions to ultimately provide a better experience for users.
We found that virtual or hybrid operations can broaden our user base and bring in new user communities; reduce travel time, cost, and greenhouse gas emissions; and streamline procedures like user training or data management. Remote users can work with facility staff through video conferencing or chat to set up and troubleshoot experiments. New tools such as virtual reality tours have been used very effectively for training. Many facilities saw an uptick in user attendance at virtual meetings and are gathering user feedback on new processes through surveys. Participants also envisioned that enhanced automation, including robotics, could open new ways of performing experiments and accelerating scientific breakthroughs.
However, it’s clear that in-person interactions are still valuable for fostering scientific creativity, building community, and sharing knowledge—particularly with students, postdocs, and early-career staff whose careers have been, by some measures, disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. It’s also important to note that not all the research that the user facilities support can be transitioned to remote work, especially the most complex and potentially highest impact experiments. And while virtual and hybrid user models have great potential benefit, they present unique challenges and burdens for facility staff and require resources to implement effectively.
The roundtable discussion revealed these and other opportunities for an even stronger, more resilient, and impactful user facility enterprise that serves a broader spectrum of users.
The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit the Office of Science website.
Authors: Stephen Streiffer, Nigel Mouncey, and Lijuan Ruan co-chaired Office of Science User Facilities “Lessons from the COVID Era and Visions for the Future” roundtable