Update for staff and students on research students returning to the workplace and what Cambridge researchers are doing to tackle COVID-19.

Dear all,

I’d like to begin today’s message by saying again how proud I am of the exemplary way in which members of our University community – our staff, our students, our alumni – have reacted to the global crisis. Our collective response has been quick, effective and dignified, and has tapped into vast reserves of endurance, creativity and solidarity. I thank you all.

Returning research students

The question of when and how postgraduate research students should return to their usual places of work has been a live issue over the past week. With some research facilities beginning to re-open in a limited capacity, many research students are wondering whether they too are expected to be there. Many of you, I know, are keen to be back at your usual places of work.

Yesterday our Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, Professor Graham Virgo, wrote to all postgraduate research students to update them on the University’s plans. Until further notice, all students should continue to work from home. Research students will only be invited back once Heads of Department have determined that a particular building can be re-opened safely, have identified which members of staff and which students should be asked to return, and have consulted with each student’s College – which will then communicate with the student about the practicalities of their return. No one should enter any University buildings until these exchanges have happened and until they have been given explicit permission to do so by their Head of Department.

As Professor Virgo said in his message, re-opening buildings and identifying who should be invited back to work in those buildings while complying with any social distancing requirements will be a complex task. We are all eager to return to our workplaces, but the process will require further patience from all of us. Our primary concern throughout will be to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our collegiate community so that we can more effectively and sustainably focus on our future research efforts. I ask students and colleagues in Colleges and Departments to read Professor Virgo’s message very carefully.

Lessons learned from lockdown

Two weeks ago I mentioned that colleagues in the ourcambridge team are conducting a staff survey to hear about our experiences, both positive and negative, during lockdown. Whether you have felt frustrated and isolated, or you have been enjoying the flexibility of working remotely, your replies to this questionnaire will allow us to improve working practices in the future. If you are able to, please take the time to provide your feedback. The deadline is 17:00 on Friday 5 June.

Tackling COVID-19

Not many organisations can claim Cambridge’s breadth and depth of knowledge when it comes to helping us understanding a global pandemic. Cambridge’s infectious diseases research community is making a huge contribution to tackling the pandemic, as explained in this Q&A with Professor James Wood, Head of our Department of Veterinary Medicine, and himself an expert on diseases transmitted between animals and humans.

The pandemic is a biomedical phenomenon, but its impact on all areas of the human experience has been profound and permanent. Alongside our excellent biomedical expertise, we will need the full arsenal of knowledge – including the physical sciences, engineering, and the arts, humanities and social sciences – to help us overcome the damage caused by the Coronavirus. This article by Leigh Shaw Taylor, a Senior Lecturer in our History Faculty, takes a long view of the pandemic and suggests – in a hopeful vein – that it is likely to go down in history as a short-term interruption to a long-term trend of improvement in life expectancy. It also argues that reversing centuries of global inter-connectedness is neither possible nor desirable.

And finally…

Having closed its gates to visitors for now, this week the Botanic Garden took its annual Festival of Plants online, with a three-day event focusing on plant science, horticulture and conservation. From gardening advice sessions to virtual tours of the Garden and talks about endangered plants, the Festival offered us all the opportunity to explore the world of plants from wherever we happened to be. The Festival finishes today, but will remain on the Botanic Garden’s website for a while so that everyone can enjoy the content at their leisure.

Meanwhile, Kettle’s Yard has continued to publish its weekly series of features by artists reflecting on the meaning of home. Wherever you happen to be, and wherever home is for you, I send you my very best wishes.

Stay safe.


Professor Stephen J Toope