Being closed or even operating at reduced capacity is a source of worry for cores. Many of them operate as sort of small businesses and rely to varying extents on the fees their users pay to keep afloat. Kigenyi's core at Kansas, for instance, is supported through roughly equal contributions from the university, grants, and user fees.
Revenue from user fees is, unsurprisingly, down. People are scrambling to figure out how to deal with this loss of income, Cole said.
"It's definitely a concern for all of our cores," Gregory added.
He and his colleagues are going through a forecasting exercise to try to predict what downstream effects this loss of revenue might have for their cores, and Kigenyi estimated that her core is losing more than $100,000 a month.
So far, though, it has been able to stay in the black by drawing on a reserve of funds it had built up through its income from industry-sponsored studies. Kigenyi added that her core is continuing to pay all its employees, whether or not they are able to work from home, at least through June when the fiscal year ends.
But many cores can't carry a large surplus of funds, Gregory noted, and those at UNC that do are using it to try to continue to pay employees as long as they can. "We really do not want to lay off anybody or furlough anybody in the cores. We just don't want to lose the talent," he said. "We have such good scientists working in these cores and it's key for us to retain them as best we can."
The lack of certainty as to how long cores may stay closed or at reduced capacity also makes planning budgets difficult. "We plan for the worst case scenario, hope for a better case scenario, and fall somewhere in between those, most likely," Gregory said.
He added that administrators at UNC are being flexible and are allowing internal funding, such as equipment grants or research development grants that can't be spent at the moment, to be carried over to the next fiscal year. Likewise at KU, Kigenyi said the reserve fund they had was put aside for research and development and new hires, but instead, they are drawing on it now to meet their short-term obligations. "And then we'll have to think about long-term commitments and how we can manage those at the same time," she added.
Federal research funding agencies have also been making allowances. The National Institutes of Health has said it would allow salaries and stipends to continue to be paid out of grants, even if no work is occuring due to the pandemic, and that grantees can request project extensions. The National Science Foundation has said it would be flexible with application deadline dates as well as allow salaries to continue to be charged to grants. Gregory noted that a number of core lab researchers' salaries at UNC are partially paid through grants, and his team has been able to continue to pay those salaries out.
Additionally, a handful of organizations representing research universities, medical schools, and teaching hospitals included core labs as one of their concerns in a letter to Congress earlier this month. In it, they sought government relief for researchers, including core labs, and asked in particular for institutions to be able to apply for emergency relief funds for core labs to cover gaps in personnel and operating costs.
In the meantime, cores are looking for ways to save even a little money. Kigenyi's core took a look at its instrumentation, including its biomagnetometer. While she said it enables interesting studies of brain activity in utero, it's complicated, hard to use, and expensive to maintain. Because of this, they have decided to sunset the machine. "It really has given us time to pause and reflect and really balance the value and the financial perspective and the long-term sustainability of some of these programs," she said.
Others are renegotiating service contracts or even purchase agreements. As the pandemic was spreading, a number of equipment purchases at UNC were pending. Those vendors are hurting now, too, Gregory noted, and have been flexible on negotiating on pricing because they need the sale.