Core Facilities Pay Off in Investigation Results, Retention, and Funding

Sharing Equipment Offers Alternatives for Leading-Edge Research

Universities, independent research institutes, and medical centers looking to improve the quality of their research, recruit and retain staff, and compete for funding increasingly focus their attention on establishing core facilities, despite some concerns in the scientific community about where these core facilities are located and possible conflicts between the research groups vying to use them. Almost regardless of discipline, researchers chafe under budgetary constraints—no small problem in the “publish or perish” environment of biomedicine. The tools necessary for even the most basic of protocols are expensive, with cutting-edge equipment running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is hardly surprising that new or remodeled facilities benefit from centralizing certain shared resources, such as imaging instruments, microscopy, cold storage, and animal facilities. But those resistant to the concept cite reservations about establishing accountability, prioritizing purchases, and ensuring equitable access. Do the benefits of core facilities outweigh these potential pitfalls?  

Shared research facilities provide access to state-of-the-art equipment and technologies, with time reserved and paid for by individual investigators’ budgets. Usually funded by a combination of federal grants and institutional funds, core facilities can also draw external revenue by allowing extramural organizations to book research time.

While each core facility features instrumentation appropriate to its research aims, advocates of the centralized approach say that collaboration is among its top advantages. “The equipment itself brings a lot of people together,” says Andrew Chitty, a program manager for shared resources at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). At some organizations, separate cores for informatics connect raw data with knowledge management, further enhancing the speed at which it can be analyzed and applied. At OHSU, an entire floor is dedicated to integrated genomic disciplines. OHSU is also considering co-locating mass spectrometry cores. “You can’t use the same mass spectrometer for large- and small-molecule work, but you can get synergies between the two,” says Chitty.

As far as accountability goes, it’s best to treat core facilities as business units responsible for their own performance, and staff them accordingly. Ian McDermott, senior director of research and safety at Toronto’s University Health Network, addresses concerns about smooth operations frankly. “If you don’t have management expertise in the core facility, it will not be successful,” he says. Chitty likewise stresses that each core’s equipment must be supported by staff who are experts in its use, and overseen by a core director with decision-making power. “Part of the key is to staff the core with people who know how to run particular instruments, who can consult with PIs who may not be as familiar with them.” In these scenarios, researchers can use highly specialized tools without needing a lot of training, saving valuable time.

Softening the “Silo Effect”

Organizations may encounter some pushback while considering or implementing the shift to centralized equipment. Obtaining funding for a mass spectrometer or a cryomicrotome seems daunting enough without fears that the instruments will be co-opted by competing research. Smart initial programming to identify equipment with the broadest applications and the highest demand should take into consideration input from stakeholders, including faculty and other facility users.

But in general, the opportunity to use sophisticated (and expensive) instrumentation outweighs staff’s less openhanded instincts. “We are at the point now where we can go around to the faculty and say we need to buy this instrument, and we need your help,” says Bob Cornwall, managing director, MRI, of Penn State. “The culture has changed to where many faculty see the value in centralization.”

Pointing out the ancillary costs associated with highly specialized equipment is also persuasive. “It’s not just maintenance and utilities,” says Chitty. “There are also costs associated with training someone to run that instrument, and then having them at the ready to assist others.” Instead, he says, “We can tell (individual PIs or research teams), ‘We’ll only charge you for the time that you use it.’ That’s a pretty compelling argument.”

Jack Paul, a principal laboratory planner with HDR Architecture, reports one recent success story at a university. Some junior PIs convinced a senior researcher to move his private scanning electron microscope to the core facility for shared use by offering him an upgrade—and a priority place in line to use the equipment. “He ended up using it about 25 or 30 percent of the time,” says Paul. Meanwhile, the junior staff gained access to a crucial tool for their own research.

Tellingly, core facilities’ popularity has increased to the point of impacting both recruiting and retention. “We are at the point where faculty are negotiating for core facility resources, either money or actual equipment in the facilities,” says Cornwall.  “They are saying, ‘For me to be a part of Penn State, I am going to need access to this characterization tool or technology, and it should be in a core facility." They are willing to pay to use it, but they won't accept a position or stay someplace that does not have the core their research requires.

Preventing Conflicts… and Bolstering Budget Claims

Computerized reservations are a popular method to keep researchers from double-booking highly sought-after core equipment, and governmental rules associated with most core facility grants ensure equitable access. Tracking the demand for resources over time is also important. “You have to justify every large purchase, especially if it’s a duplicate or an upgrade,” says Cornwall. “We track every faculty member to see what they use, and how often. If you can show a dean that 50 percent of the utilization on a piece of equipment is from their college, that college is more likely to come back and help.” Likewise, if extramural organizations (who typically pay a premium for access) are using certain instruments consistently and often, this contributes to arguments for upgrades or replacements. “You should set those rates higher to make sure that you are prioritizing the internal community first,” says Chitty. “We generally do about 15 percent (markup) for external academic, which is the standard for most cores. But something like light microscopy can charge double (for external commercial clientele).”

Tracking actual facility use can also substantiate the value of the research itself. One concern is how to directly tie research output—publications—to the core facilities used to conduct the research. “That’s much harder to track than where the dollars are coming from,” says Cornwall. “It’s something we would like to be able to do more of.”

Soon, it may not be optional. Shared instrumentation grants (or S10s) now require a completed table depicting all other S10s received in the past, along with the publications they have underwritten. Neal Armstrong, associate vice president for research at the University of Arizona, describes a recent scramble to assemble this information. “We ended up paying one of our administrative people to run through PubMed for every investigator at our institution, then go back to every one of them and find out what core facility was used for that particular research. You have to actually reference (any grant monies received) and say, ‘This one used flow cytometry.’”

Location, Location, Location

Core facilities are typically discrete units with dedicated space and personnel, and their placement within an institution plays a critical role in their success. Transportation and circulation must be weighed against other practical concerns, such as hazardous material disposal procedures. Whether any competing core facilities are nearby may also influence siting, especially if dependence on extramural fees is anticipated.

Lastly, the degree to which an organization hopes for collaboration among disciplines or among cores themselves is a factor. For example, the informatics core facility at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is on the main level of its translational research building. “It was placed there specifically so that people would interact with it on a regular basis,” says Gail Dahlstrom, senior health care consultant at HDR in Chicago, and the medical center’s former vice president of supply chain and facilities management. “The building itself is at an intersection between the clinical side of the facility and the research side, so we expect to see more clinical scientists coming through.”

David Dorsett, research and facilities manager with Texas Tech University, echoes Dahlstrom’s emphasis on siting that provides the broadest access. “We are looking at concentrating all of our core facilities in central locations so they can be easily accessible to everyone, rather than having them piecemealed throughout separate buildings,” he says.

As with most successful capital improvement projects, the decision to centralize should be informed by research and investment goals, funding policies, and organizational culture. However, the diverse experiences of the professionals who contributed to this discussion indicate that core facilities are not a passing fad, but an opportunity to enrich and advance research, foster collaboration, appeal to current and potential staff, and attract funding. The ability to directly link core facility use to research outcomes appears to be the next big challenge, but with use-tracking, billing, scheduling, and data delivery systems becoming par for the course, organizations that shy away from the core approach may soon find themselves without valuable funding leverage. Armstrong reiterates, “Institutions that are not proactive now about documenting what publications previous S10s have generated will find themselves in a panic.”

By Liz Batchelder


Project Data
Completion Date: 
September, 2015
Published 9-30-2015