ALES has gone through a remarkable transformation in the last few weeks. Our 1550 undergraduates, 600+ graduate students, staff and faculty have responded with creativity and flexibility as we adapt to our “new normal”. Our vision of “Solving Global Problems Together” has become real as we actively work to support our partner sectors in agriculture, food, forestry, energy and the environment-all of which are so critical to Alberta’s present and future success. We see our impact throughout ALES in our four Departments: Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science; Renewable Resources; Human Ecology and Resource Economics & Environmental Sociology.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in major impacts to post-secondary institutions globally. As the leading institution in Alberta, it has resulted in direct impacts to both fundamental pillars of the university community including teaching and research at the University of Alberta.
I would like to take this opportunity to reach out to our multitude of sponsors, stakeholders and partners to provide you with the confidence that the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences is: (1) first and foremost keeping people safe and limiting the spread of the COVID-19 virus; (2) adapting undergraduate and graduate course instruction into an on-line environment; and (3) working to support graduate student training, plant and animal units, on-going critical research projects and long-term data collections.
In March, the University of Alberta suspended in-person teaching, and directed efforts towards delivering online instruction. On March 19, 2020, the university directed all staff to work from home if possible. Since this time, virtually all of ALES staff have been able to transition to working from home. In addition to completing the teaching term successfully, all research activities that can be conducted remotely from home or in a virtual setting have gone forward uninterrupted. During this period, the Minister of Agriculture & Forestry has identified the agri-food value chain as an essential service, and the Premier and the Minister of Environment and Parks has identified the need for monitoring and post-COVID-19 diversification in all aspects of agriculture, forestry, and the environment. As such, an internal review process including pproval from the Deaa and registration with the University’s Environmental Health and Safety office has been put in place to ensure that our essential research can proceed uninterrupted. Additionally, maintenance and sustainable operation of our plant and animal units has been deemed ‘essential’ and are being maintained by core ALES staff.
The challenges of the COVID-19 crisis have come at an especially difficult time due to the current financial challenges and budget restraint experienced by the post-secondary institutions in Alberta. Our faculty is no exception and we have undertaken extraordinary steps of restructuring much of the internal operations of the faculty with a centralization of all research support and oversight as well oversight and management of all our research units. These steps have fortunately positioned us well to develop and introduce robust processes for research planning, review and oversight allowing critical research to continue despite the severe challenges and restrictions of a COVID-19 emergency. To identify and support essential research, we have developed and implemented a new faculty-wide approval process that will allow for the review, assessment and approval of all on- and off-campus projects followed by formal registration of activities with the University Office of Environmental Health and Safety.
For on-campus work, key requirements have been identified in order to allow project activity to continue. Specifically, projects must meet provincial essential service criteria, as identified above.
- Projects are not ‘new’ research (a new project that has not even started, or one that could be reasonably postponed with minimal impact)
- Delays will significantly impact the long-term investment into a multi-year project.
- Research personnel will abide by all provincial health and safety directives including:
- monitoring for symptoms: cough, fever, shortness of breath, runny nose or sore throat,
- self-isolation for the legally-required two weeks if personnel has any symptoms that are not related to a pre-existing illness or medical condition,
- practice physical distancing (2m minimum)
- practice good hygiene: wash hands often for at least 20 seconds, cover coughs and sneezes, and avoid touching face
In the case of off-campus fieldwork, we have implemented higher levels of oversight and restriction aligning with the province’s goals of preventing impacts on rural communities across Alberta. To this end we have created a new ALES Field Research Committee that has established processes for review and evaluation of field research requests. After review and recommendations, proposed activities are reviewed at department level before final approvals by the Dean and finally by the centralized UofA Public Health Response Team. In addition to meeting all the criteria above, field research programs must demonstrate planning and documentation on how they will:
- Go through a review and abide by all travel restrictions (national and international), including travel to Northern Canada
- Avoid travel to rural areas and contact with rural communities in Alberta - this includes planning for self-containment and prevention of contact outside of the UofA community (e.g. groceries, lodgings, meeting with user groups or local community people)
We look forward to working with our sponsors, stakeholders and partners to remobilize the extensive research platform of non-essential on- and off-campus research that is currently in stasis, once deemed safe to do so under the direction of the provincial and central university planning.
In addition to adapting to new financial realities and managing the challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis, our faculty is also undergoing additional changes to our relationship with research partner organizations. As a result of the new campus budgetary model, impacted by the elimination of the provincial support for maintaining and operating facilities, and to bring campus in alignment to other U-12 universities, the office of the Vice President Research & Innovation has, as of May 1, implemented a new indirect costs of research policy. The new policy, which is competitive but still lower than many U-15 institutions, seeks to better align the recovery of indirect costs to the actual resources deployed to support research activities. As Dean, I will be reaching out to our key stakeholders and partners to discuss the impact and opportunities presented by this change in policy. Some major changes to the campus policy include:
- Increasing the indirect cost rate from 20% to 30%
- Distribution of 100% of the indirect costs to the faculty holding the research funds (as opposed to the previous 85%)
- Canceling the Application for Indirect Cost Recovery Rates Procedure.
- Canceling automatic adjustment to industry matching funding for awards requiring matching contributions from a recognized major granting agency (e.g., NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR) and a private company to the University. A new 30% indirect cost rate (as opposed to 0% currently) will apply for the matching industry funding once the new procedure is in place.
- Requiring the Dean’s approval for any indirect cost rate change requests.
- Honoring the indirect costs rate for those grants, contracts and proposals in place on the effective date of this procedure until the end of the grant or contract, or until the time of renewal
Looking forward, we trust that you will help us to maintain this balance between a safe community and our mission for education and research. As we work with our partners on responsible stewardship of resources, and our especially vulnerable students and early career researchers, we hope to have your support where appropriate on assistance such as cash-flow reprofiling, extensions, changes to matching funds, etc. Our primary mission is to keep people safe and work through the unprecedented challenges we collectively face as a community.
I look forward to future engagement and the opportunity to work collectively to adapt and streamline our partnerships and processes to increase the viability, sustainability, and profitability of our agricultural, food, forestry, and renewable resource sectors. There are many new initiatives on the near horizon we are excited to move forward with including efforts to build a new state-of-the-art greenhouse (to service plant scientists across the entire campus) as well as efforts looking to renew and upgrade several of the animal units, including planning with our industry partners for a potential new dairy unit. If you would like to further discuss how we are handling these exciting new initiatives, research, teaching or community engagement as a whole, or in terms of an individual project, program or policy, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or my team.
Stanford F. Blade, PhD, P.Ag.