UT-Austin to resume human subject research, increase workforce density

Amanda Figueroa-Nieves

UT will increase research workforce density to 50%, resume some in-person interactions with human subjects starting Sept. 23 and allow undergraduates to return to labs in early October, according to the Human Subjects Research Restart plan and an email sent to current researchers.

Researchers must request approval to reactivate their human subjects research study, according to the plan. Research communications manager Adrienne Dawson said the plan divides human subjects research projects into one of four tiers: A through D. She said projects in tiers A, B and C can be approved to resume research at this time. 

A project’s tier depends on the potential benefit of the study to the participant and the risk of COVID-19 transmission, Dawson said. 

“For example, direct physical contact between a researcher and a participant for longer than 15 minutes is considered to be a high-risk scenario,” Dawson said in an email. “But if that direct contact is required as part of a study that provides symptom management for an illness that has few or no other adequate alternative treatments … this particular study would be assigned to tier B.”

Higher tier projects will be allowed to continue when COVID-19 community transmission is lower. When COVID-19 community transmission risks outweigh benefits of the research, they will be deactivated, according to the plan. All research that can be conducted virtually will continue to be done remotely, Dawson said.

Psychology professor David Schnyer said one of his projects, which focuses on traumatic brain injuries, will benefit from the research restart plan. 

“We will be able to recruit new patients in the emergency department, and we'll be able to follow up with them with their assessments,” Schnyer said. 


Schnyer said the traumatic brain injury study will not enroll patients who are over 65 years old because they are considered a group vulnerable to COVID-19. 

He said a separate project, focusing on how changes in sleep affect aging — which involves people who are considered high risk — will not resume. Instead, some work will be done remotely, but it will not fulfill the original purpose of the project, he said. 

“It was very clear that all our research would need to shut down, and that very likely it would probably be some of the last research that would be reinstituted because of the populations we work with,” Schnyer said. 

The fall planning executive committee has also agreed to resume undergraduate on-campus research beginning in early October, according to the email from Alison Preston, the vice president for research. 

The plan will rely heavily on regular proactive community testing among undergraduate researchers, according to the email. Dawson said the plans for undergraduates are still being finalized, but the 50% workforce density limit will not change. 

Schnyer said not working with undergraduates has been a loss for the lab. There are usually 15 undergraduates working in the lab at any given time, and now he has two or three working remotely, he said. 

“I'm hoping that something will come back soon because our lab relied heavily on undergrads to come in, and they rely heavily on us to give them that experience so they can move their careers forward,” Schnyer said