Case Study: Dr Blair Johnston, Strathclyde University

In the latest of our case study posts, we focus on Dr Blair Johnston, a Reader at the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences.

Blair’s research interests include drug discovery, molecular structure simulation, machine learning and prediction, data analysis, and web-enabled science. His research group works closely with experimental scientists to use collaborative research to realise the full potential of their laboratory data.

Blair is also the prime mover in the development of the equipment and facility sharing service, ULAB. The system development started in 2012 with institutional funding from EPSRC and aims to “streamline the management of equipment and maximise the utilisation of laboratory facilities”. It has proved very popular and successful with:
● Over 3000 registered users – primarily at Strathclyde University
● Over 8000 equipment bookings per month
● Over £50 million worth of equipment registered

The equipment

Much of the equipment available through ULAB is associated with research programmes such as CMAC, the Future Manufacturing Research Hub, a national centre, based at Strathclyde and funded by EPSRC.

Typical equipment registered includes:
● 3D powder printer
● X-ray diffractometers
● Fabrication laboratories
● Characterisation systems
● Mechanical and compression testers

Finding the equipment

The system has a “bottom-up” structure with the users registering their equipment on a facilities page. This, in turn, creates a link and makes the equipment findable. Any individual can do a basic search of ULAB. They can also register for advance search options and to book equipment. The platform can be used by industry and commercial partners as well as international researchers.

Equipment registered on the Strathclyde University asset register is also available. Much of this in turn can be accessed via the Jisc platform, for example, an x-ray diffractometer is listed on both systems.

Accessing the equipment

Several methods are used to access the available equipment. In some cases visiting researchers use the equipment themselves, providing they have the required skills. In other cases they work with expert local staff. Alternatively they may send samples or specifications for work to take place remotely.

Are there barriers?

Some concerns have been expressed over making high value equipment visible through the system. Also GDPR compliance means that improved end user agreements are required.

There could be issues relating to the insurance of equipment with respect to breakages or miss-use, however, Blair feels this is outside ULAB’s remit – they see themselves as a “matchmaker”.

There is occasionally a lack of willingness to share “my equipment”. Concern surrounds it not always being available to the owning research group. However, funders are increasingly putting pressure on researchers to demonstrate that sharing will and does take place.

Benefits and the future

Blair sees great benefits in equipment and facility sharing.

Before developing ULAB, the availability of heavily used equipment could be a problem. No formal booking systems were used, resulting in researchers arriving at facilities at 4 in the morning to ensure equipment was available to them.

Each item of equipment has its own QR code linked to a document register containing information such as SOPs (standard operating procedures) and maintenance information. Additionally, this helps in terms of health and safety records with incident and near miss reports.

Where researchers are working with local expert staff there is a certain amount of skills transfer taking place, and even the facilitation of exchange of ideas and collaboration.

A byproduct of the better record keeping, to facilitate sharing, is that improved audit and insurance information is available.

It is clear that, in future, funding bodies are going to be keen to see greater utilisation of equipment and facilities. Blair feels that some equipment can have as low as 5% utilisation at present. The ULAB system tracks bookings and usage allowing funders and institutions to monitor more effectively equipment use. This monitoring actually encourages increased utilisation.

The ULAB team are keen to expand the platform internationally, and for it to become a community based “spin out” from Strathclyde University, based upon the current success of the system. They propose that individual users will not be charged. Income will be generated from corporate and institutional subscriptions, providing enhanced services, such as aggregated reporting, and sponsorship.

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