Survey Examines Challenges with Shared Resource Facilities

Shared resource facilities provide greater access of resources to researchers, and make strategic and efficient use of  funding mechanisms. Released earlier this month, the Federation of American Societies For Experimental Biology’s (FASEB) Maximizing Shared Resources report consisted of the results of a 54 question survey of 751 respondents that were principal investigators (34%), facility/center directors (32%), facility/center staff (16%), graduate/postdoc/fellowship students (12%) and lab staff (7%). Shared resource facilities, which the FASEB describes as “cores, stock centers, and user facilities at the National Laboratories,” provide additional benefits to cost savings and access by offering specialized expertise, quality control and specialized research opportunities, technology development and technical training, as well as by serving as a hub for collaborative science research. According to the FASEB, shared research resources use research funds effectively and can help provide access to cutting edge technologies. As the FASEB stated in its report, “through shared resource facilities, the research community can promote rigorous research practices, quality technical training and collaborative research.”

The survey questions looked at four major topics: utilization of resources and identification of unmet needs; facilities’ role in providing resource access; sources of funding and resources support for facilities; and resource provision careers and quality training for staff. The Maximizing Shared Resources report also included a section on FASEB recommendations for the challenges faced by shared resource facilities.

In examining the survey results, the FASEB determined four key challenges based on the four question topics for improving shared resource facilities. These are: funding and business operations; discoverability and access; the ability to meet evolving needs; and facility career track and staff development.


Funding and Business Operations

Funding greatly varies amongst research institutions and departments and, as the report indicated, funding from federal sources is unstable due to its inconsistency. This is exacerbated by the variability of funding, as federal grants are used for specific types of support in research facilities (i.e., instrumentation, research or center grants). Almost a third of respondents, or 31%, noted that the annual income of their facilities were “moderately variable” or “highly variable,” with regional facilities having greater discrepancies in their funding rates.

“The high variation among grant programs in what types of resources and associated costs are funded leads to gaps in support.”

Although certain shared resource providers have attempted to diversify income streams to their respective facilities, due to federal polices and regulations, many were unable to offer services to outside users. Many federal agencies are examining and adjusting resource programs to tackle these concerns. The NSF, for example, issued a request for information earlier this month regarding mid-scale research infrastructure needs for the purpose of developing a strategy to ensure that mid-scale projects do not fall in between eligibility thresholds of NIH programs for funding research infrastructure.

“The NSF [planning] to establish support for mid-scale infrastructure is an excellent example of the type of gaps that exist in federal grant programs,” said Sheenah M. Mische, PhD. Dr. Mische serves as the chair of the FASEB’s Shared Resource Committee, and is also senior director, Division of Advanced Research Technologies, and associate professor (Research) in the Department of Pathology at New York University Langone Health. She explained that many of the NSF programs are concentrated on meeting the requirements of specific disciplines or a group of scientists. “However, shared resource facilities often serve researchers in many different fields, and many researchers utilize multiple facilities,” she said. “The high variation among grant programs in what types of resources and associated costs are funded also leads to gaps in support. We need greater coordination and strategic planning across all resource grant programs to ensure efficient and effective use of funds.”

In the recommendations section of the report, the FASEB suggested improving business models for shared resource facilities by customizing them for specific technologies and services. Also, to ensure federal funds are maximized, the FASEB recommended that federal agencies improve the funding programs that support shared resource facilities.

Other mechanisms, such as refurbished equipment, are also alternative ways for facilities to procure instruments. “Industry partnerships are always welcome,” Dr. Mische added. “[F]acilitating access to new platforms to assess applicability for the research project or to collect pilot data for grant applications would be of particular help.”


Discoverability and Access

Of great importance for facility discoverability and access, the FASEB report noted, is ensuring that shared resources are financially sustainable, and that investigators are able to easily locate and utilize them. However, as indicated by the survey results, access is a major challenge for researchers, with just below 50% of respondents stating their desire to utilize a facility but being unable to do so over the past five years. This is due to being unable to identify a facility that would meet their needs, high usage costs, inadequate capacity and restrictions on utilization access. In fact, the survey indicated that 95% of respondents use word-of-mouth in their search for an appropriate facility. Moreover, 57% refer to institutional facility lists, while 52% search online, leaving only 21% and 17% of respondents who use a facilities database or a commercial service provider, respectively.

Research institutions would be able to greatly increase productivity and increase competitiveness amongst their investigators by ensuring that investigators can easily find the resources and access they require, according to the report. However, survey respondents indicated minimal availability of resource-related programs at their institutes, and less than half of respondents belong to an organization that reaches out to faculty and researchers about facilities that are available.

Even if a researcher is able to locate the appropriate facility for their project, many researchers are unable to afford facility fees; in fact, according to the survey results, lowering facility fees was listed as the most important need by unfunded researchers applying for grants and investigators at institutes that are less research intensive.

The FASEB recommended that government agencies increase the awareness of shared resource facilities and providers through a national database, connect researchers with the institutional resources they need, and establish better funding mechanisms that cover fees for unfunded investigators and other researchers that are unable to utilize facilities due to high fees.


Ability to Meet Evolving Needs

Evolution is key for a facility to meet changing research needs and advancing technologies. Replacing or upgrading equipment, training staff appropriately and improving workflows are some of the ways facilities can address evolving needs, according to the FASEB report. However, adequate funds are needed in order to implement these actions, and this is a hurdle for many facility directors.

Additional funding is not the only solution to this challenge, as the FASEB calls this issue “multifaceted.” Many times, procuring instruments requires that facilities obtain instruments through external sponsors or the institution itself, but very few federal instrument grants are awarded each year and the grants themselves are largely insufficient, according to survey respondents.

“When asked what specific resource they would most like to use in their own research, survey respondents overwhelmingly described instruments and services that are typically provided through facilities,” said Dr. Mische. However, as indicated in the FASEB’s report, facilities frequently struggle to achieve this. “For example, many facility personnel reported difficulty securing capital funding for new instruments and maintaining existing ones, limiting the facility’s capacity to serve researchers,” Dr. Mische continued. “Insufficient support also can limit expertise and the range of services available; a number of shared resource core directors stated that they were unable to obtain funding for staff development or protected time to create and implement new protocols.”

“[Instrument companies’] assistance promotes rigorous and reproducible research, especially when companies contribute to and share best practices with the user community.”

In order to combat this issue, Dr. Mische explained that shared resource scientists must be able to improve, replace or acquire new instruments, and that, in and of itself, requires an improved, more sustainable business model. In order to do this, Dr. Mische pointed out that survey respondents suggested that facilities secure various income streams and maintain a broad user base. “Facility directors also need to continuously engage with other researchers to identify emerging needs,” added Dr. Mische.

As indicated in the report’s recommendations, through improved coordination of federal support for shared resources, implementation of long-term strategic planning at institutions and ensuring that staff expertise and services are up-to-date, federal funding can be maximized and therefore more effective, resulting in the facility keeping up with evolving needs.


Facility Career Track and Staff Development

Although facility directors, core scientists and technical staff have significant roles in facilities, their career tracks are many times discounted, resulting in a lack of support for their goals of accelerating scientific research and recruiting expert staff. This can result in lower-quality services at the facility and a high turnover of personnel, ultimately reducing the cost efficiency of the facility, according to the FASEB.

The FASEB recommended that investigators acknowledge shared resource facilities and recognize the facility personnel, as well as provide greater job security for the staff, such as offering training and development grants.

Instrument companies can play a key role in supporting shared resource facilities, especially when it comes to training. “Companies can help by informing their customers about new applications and protocols for their equipment.” Partnering with FASEB member societies, such as the Association for Biomolecular Research Facilities, is a way that companies can promote training and education on emerging technologies, she noted.

As Dr. Mische indicated, regardless of whether they were facility users or facility providers, 92% of survey respondents deemed staff expertise as indispensable. “Companies can assist by ensuring that training for instrumentation is part of the purchase agreement and follow-up training also is available,” she said. “Additionally, companies can make comprehensive training materials for their instruments freely available and easy to find. These actions can help facilities implement new protocols as well as maintain continuity during staff turnover.”

The support provided by instrument companies can also positively affect research results. “This assistance also promotes rigorous and reproducible research, especially when companies contribute to and share best practices with the user community,” Dr. Mische explained. “Finally, companies can offer affordable parts for older machines, especially models for which service contracts are no longer offered. While new equipment is preferred for pivotal experiments, older instruments may still be useful for training purposes and pilot studies.”

As Dr. Mische told IBO, shared resource facilities have great potential to expand access to leading technologies and instrumentation, as well as accelerating scientific innovation. Through enhanced support and improved coordination, both institutes and instrument companies alike can help improve the access and usage of instrumentation and other needs at shared resource facilities.

As the FASEB addresses issues faced by basic, translational and clinical researchers through examining the effects of policy, advocacy and legislation in these areas, the organization has future plans to continue addressing challenges in the shared resource facility space, according to Dr. Mische.


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