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May 2020 (Volume 29, Number 5)

FYI: Science Policy News from AIP

National Labs Pivot to Pandemic Research

By Mitch Ambrose

At the outset of April, all but two of the 17 Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories were in states whose governors had issued stay-at-home orders to blunt the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Though most lab employees are now teleworking en masse, some on-site work that has been deemed essential continues, particularly research related to the pandemic.

DOE has mobilized its suite of user facilities and other infrastructure to complement research efforts underway at public health agencies, casting a wide net for ideas on how to support the national response.

“Not every lab has the capability, but they are all participating together in a working group that we've put together to ask questions, ‘Hey, have you thought of this? Did you try that?’” remarked DOE Office of Science Director Chis Fall in a March interview.

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As one major thrust of its effort, DOE has enlisted light and neutron sources across the lab complex to study the structure of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19.

For instance, the National Synchrotron Light Source II at Brookhaven National Lab in New York has run experiments with protein crystallography beamlines to characterize viral components that could be targeted by drugs. The Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkley National Lab in California has likewise made its beams available for structural biology studies, as have light sources at other DOE labs.

The Advanced Light Source was initially put on “warm standby” after several counties in the San Francisco Bay Area issued stay-at-home orders in mid-March, the first such directives in the country, but the facility resumed limited operations in April to support coronavirus research. Berkeley Lab’s Joint Genome Institute has also offered expertise in high-throughput automation to aid a robotic coronavirus testing initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, and staff from its Molecular Foundry Facility are working with Stanford University to synthesize peptoids that could be used to develop antiviral agents.

DOE’s two neutron sources at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee were on scheduled shutdowns when the pandemic first escalated in the US, but they began accepting rapid access proposals for coronavirus research in April. Meanwhile, the pandemic has shuttered the country’s one other major neutron source user facility. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Center for Neutron Research was shut down in mid-March due to a potential case of COVID-19 among its staff, and the agency had not announced any plans to resume the center’s operations as of mid-April.

Beyond imaging facilities, several DOE labs have lent their supercomputers to the effort, participating in the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium launched by the White House on March 23. The consortium triages requests for computing resources at DOE, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and several private companies. Among the first projects, the NSF-funded Frontera supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computer Center is running detailed simulations of the virus’ surface to identify potential vulnerabilities, and Oak Ridge’s Summit supercomputer has modeled molecular interactions between the virus and thousands of drug compounds.

In support of such efforts, Congress included supplemental appropriations for research in the phase three coronavirus response legislation signed into law on March 27. Beyond providing billions to public health agencies, the measure provides smaller amounts to a broad set of science agencies, including $100 million for DOE to support access to its user facilities, $75 million for NSF grants, and $66 million for measurement science and manufacturing programs at NIST.

The author is Acting Director of FYI.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

May 2020 (Volume 29, Number 5)

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Physicists Rise to the Challenge
The April Meeting Must Go On..line
Philip Anderson 1923–2020
The Topical Group on Precision Measurements and Fundamental Constants
PhysicsQuest Expands Online with Help from the Eucalyptus Foundation
Understanding the Dynamic Climate System
Wikipedia Editing Course Gives a Voice to Women and Minorities in Physics
Sparking the Joy of Physics at Home
This Month in Physics History
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