Amid pandemic, Energy Department labs close to tens of thousands of users
Sotto voce, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has begun to restrict access and ramp down activities at its national laboratories in response to the coronavirus crisis. However, no unified protocol has emerged that applies to all labs, which every year serve more than 30,000 visiting researchers. It seems likely that some of DOE’s major research facilities will solider on—as they may prove helpful in the fight against the new virus.
Today, Brookhaven National Laboratory announced on its website that, “Access is suspended for all non-Brookhaven users, visitors, and guests starting Tuesday, March 17,” with some exceptions. Argonne National Laboratory announced similar restrictions on Sunday. “If you are not an Argonne employee, please cancel travel to Argonne during the 30-day period beginning March 17, 2020,” the lab posted on its website.
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory—the United States’s dedicated particle physics laboratory—is closed to the public starting tomorrow, as is the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility—a nuclear physics lab. Many of DOE’s 17 national labs appear to have ordered nonessential personnel to work from home, if possible.
Exactly how the labs are reacting to the crisis remains murky, however, as no clear, unified approach has been articulated. For example, 10 of the labs are run out of DOE’s basic research arm, the Office of Science, and of those, only seven had posted announcements about the epidemic on their websites. Among others, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s website makes no mention of coronavirus restrictions or guidance, even though the lab is 320 kilometers from Seattle, one of the U.S. epicenters for the outbreak. Press officers at the various labs referred questions to DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C. DOE declined to comment.
Still, it seems likely that at least parts of the Office of Science labs will stay open to help fight the virus. In fact, on 12 March, Chris Fall, a neuroscientist and director of the Office of Science, sent an open letter to DOE-sponsored researchers urging them to suggest ways in which they could help fight the virus. DOE’s x-ray synchrotrons, such as the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne, above, can help decipher the structures of proteins associated with the virus and the department’s supercomputers, such as the Summit supercomputer, can sort through masses of data to help find drugs to combat the disease.