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The Role of Researchers

In Protecting Their Research From Disasters

Academic biomedical research institutions are hubs of employment, productivity, and scientific advancement, driving economic development and generating crucial knowledge.

The $27 billion invested each year in academic life sciences research supports scientific discovery that affects society in myriad ways.

When disaster strikes an academic biomedical research laboratory, the potentially catastrophic impacts may be felt at many levels, from individual researchers to the scientific enterprise as a whole. Likewise, actors at all levels of the academic biomedical research community have a role to play in preparing for disasters and contributing to a culture of preparedness and resilience.

A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine outlines the actions that researchers—and others—can take to enhance the disaster resilience of the academic biomedical research community.

The Impacts of Disasters

Types of disasters can include:

Laboratories may face:

  • fires; floods; severe weather; seismic activity; extensive absences due to illness

  • hazardous material spills; reaction to controversial research; intentional acts of violence or theft

  • the loss of the electrical grid; loss of lab materials, equipment, data, or computer systems

Disasters can cause tangible and intangible losses to the academic biomedical research community, at many levels:

  • Researchers
    • loss of safety and well-being of people and research animals
    • loss of years of work and large sums of money invested
    • career setbacks

  • Academic research institutions
    • damage to research facilities, data, samples, reagents, and equipment
    • impacts on research animals, utilities, critical infrastructure, and IT
    • interruptions to supply chains and critical services
    • loss of human capital, monetary costs, legal implications

  • Research sponsors
    • disruption to research outcomes, administrative burden, financial burden

  • Communities, states, and the nation
    • impacts to employment, economic productivity, and biomedical progress
    • interruption to health services, education, and research capacity

  • Scientific progress
    • disrupted progress of science and medical care


Tropical Storm Allison, 2001

Tropical Storm Allison dumped 10 million gallons of water into the basement of the medical school at the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSC-H), putting more than 1 million gross square feet of space out of service for months. Facility damage alone was estimated at $52 million.

3,200 faculty, staff, and students at the UTHSC-H were displaced for more than a month.

The work of about 400 faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students was affected, with research projects and graduate training programs significantly delayed.

Total losses for UTHSC-H were estimated at $205.4 million.

The impacts of disasters can be substantially reduced or eliminated by undertaking planning in these five areas:


Hurricane Sandy, 2012

Major flooding combined with power outages led to many researchers from the New York University Langone Medical Center (NYU Langone) to establish makeshift, temporary labs at neighboring research institutions. About 90 researchers had to relocate long-term.

A significant number of research animals died at NYU Langone, with an estimated dollar value, including replacement cost, of $25-$30 million.

The value of lost scientific equipment at NYU Langone was estimated at $20-$25 million, and damage to the institution’s IT data center was estimated at $33 million.

As a result of Hurricane Sandy, the National Institutes of Health reinvested millions to reinitiate research programs: $75.9 million for research restoration, $49.2 million for construction and renovation, and $1.7 million for safety training.

The Role of the Researcher

The principal investigator (PI) is the central focus of research efforts. As the person most knowledgeable about the critical functions within the research laboratory environment, the PI and his or her lab members are in the best position to understand the specialized needs of their research, and together with institutional leadership, they can and should take steps to protect their research and promote a resilient laboratory.

Protecting the research data, samples, and reagents of the research enterprise is ultimately the responsibility of both the academic research institution and the PI.

What You Can Do

Individual researcher-based efforts are crucial to achieving resilience in the academic biomedical research community.

In addition to helping develop and implement plans, policies, and procedures to ensure operational continuity, researchers should work with their institutions to safeguard and preserve critical aspects of research. Researchers can:

Protect Animals

  • participate in effective exercises to ensure that animals can be successfully moved during an emergency
  • understand a building’s infrastructure systems and emergency power redundancy
  • help define and communicate the level of needed protection to architects and engineers designing the vivarium
  • Click here for other steps to protect research animals

Protect Data

  • ensure that critical research data are backed up using reliable, tested, and secure methods
  • document and back up research methodology
  • Click here for other steps to protect data

Protect Samples and Reagents

  • store selected duplicate samples in a remote location
  • maintain current inventory of samples and reagents, with location information
  • develop redundant storage, preferably on- and off-site, for specimens that cannot be replaced
  • Click here for other steps to protect samples and reagents

Protect Equipment

  • maintain and service all equipment and devices that secure specimens and materials
  • ensure that freezers and other temperature-sensitive machinery are connected to an emergency power supply, and know how long they will maintain temperature during power loss
  • identify equipment that may need to be reset when power is restored
  • keep a list of essential specialized equipment, including make, model, serial number, and purchase location
  • Click here and here for other steps to protect equipment

A Culture of Safety

Researchers should stay up-to-date on accreditations, current trends, and trainings so that their institutions can adequately implement and execute preparedness plans.

It is important for researchers to maintain a culture of compliance and strive to engage in safe work practices day-to-day. By practicing personal preparedness actions—both at home and at work—researchers can make an important contribution to the disaster resilience of the academic biomedical research community.

tweet thisBiomedical researchers can contribute to a culture of safety and #DisasterResilientLabs. Learn more at

To learn much more about disaster preparedness in the academic biomedical research community, please read the report at

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Copyright 2017 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved