Many universities are developing “core facilities”—i.e., research infrastructure that is open to researchers from across the university and that may be available to outside users as well. Operating core facilities so a wide range of researchers can access specialized research tools is a way to maximize usage of, and potential impact from, infrastructure that often represents millions of dollars in capital.
To ensure that core facilities can be used effectively by a range of researchers, core facilities need to be supported by highly qualified staff. This is a key difference from other labs that serve only one or a few research groups that specialize in the techniques available in these labs.
Attempts to rely on the part-time efforts of students—a group with a rapid turnover rate—are often not effective to maximize the use of core facilities. I experienced this ineffectiveness firsthand as a graduate student when I received some pointers on how to use a new apparatus from a professor and a student who had used it only once or twice themselves. After several unsuccessful attempts to produce meaningful results, some other students and I diverted our efforts more productively elsewhere. The apparatus, valued at around $500,000, had been funded as part of a multimillion-dollar grant to purchase a set of equipment that, if operated collectively as a core facility, could have been a tremendously valuable resource to students and faculty researchers from several departments in the university. How different would my student experience have been if this apparatus had been offered as part of a “core facility” that had even one technician who was an expert in its operation?
Research infrastructure is sometimes compared to roads, which are built to benefit a wide range of users, from commuters to emergency services. Similarly, research infrastructure is funded by governments so users can conduct research and generate knowledge that will benefit all of society. However, the roads analogy falls short when it suggests that governments can fund research infrastructure once, and then leave it alone with little to no concern for its ongoing operation. This is simply not the case.
Research infrastructure requires expert staff to make sure that users can take full advantage of the research tools on offer. In this respect, research infrastructure is less like roads and more like the medical diagnostic imaging facilities that host MRI machines and CT scanners. These centralized medical facilities are supported by highly trained specialists who aid in the diagnosis of patients by operating the equipment, helping to interpret the results, and providing other essential services like ensuring the equipment is maintained in a state of readiness. Without these trained specialists, the “users” who order the tests (e.g., family doctors and surgeons) cannot effectively diagnose and treat patient illness and disease.
What if governments took a “fund it once and then leave it to the users” approach to MRI machines and CT scanners? That is, what if family doctors and surgeons were left to operate this highly specialized equipment on their own? Would that be a good use of their time? Most likely, fewer patients would be diagnosed due to doctors’ time constraints. One can also imagine an increase in failed diagnostic tests or wrongly interpreted results. Certainly, the health of patients would suffer.
Universities’ core research facilities can be even more complicated to operate and maintain than medical diagnostic facilities—and a “fund it once and then leave it to the users” approach is just as ineffective. The faculty researchers who use a core facility are often not experts in the facility’s equipment. These professors and their students would therefore produce more and better results if the core facility was supported with appropriate expertise.
Core facilities lie midway between a single-professor lab and a large-scale national laboratory, such as Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, SNOLAB, the Canadian Light Source, or Canada’s National Design Network. Large-scale research infrastructure requires many scientific and engineering experts to maintain the state-of-the-art equipment, develop new applications of the infrastructure, and foster a community of researchers who can fully exploit the facility to advance Canadian research priorities. The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) acknowledges the need for in-house expertise and provides funding for this purpose through its Major Science Initiatives (MSI) Fund—but this fund is only for large-scale facilities.
Core facilities are often challenged to cover the costs of essential, highly qualified scientific and technical staff when relying primarily on limited funds from within the university. Inadequate support may be one reason core facilities have been less successful in attracting further investment through the CFI Innovation Fund.
Clearly, there is a role for a research funding mechanism to support the operations of mid-sized core research facilities. With the CFI receiving stable funding beginning in 2023, the door may be open to such a program.
In the meantime, universities may need to make the difficult decision to fully fund their core research facilities’ operations themselves. Those that get ahead of the game by proactively providing their core facilities with adequate staff now will be better able to compete for operating funds in the future when such a competition becomes available. Indeed, facilities that do invest now will be more successful because they will have higher usage rates and higher numbers of successful experiments. What’s more, over time, they will build a stronger track record of research impact.
What core facilities do you oversee? How do you ensure that they are adequately supported with highly qualified staff? What do you see as being imperative to the success of a core facility?
For further discussion, you can reach me at: http://tvbassociates.ca/#contact