An institutional perspective on equipment sharing

We’re delighted to be publishing a guest blog from Chris Wilkinson, Equipment Sharing project manager at Cambridge University. Read on for a recent review of equipment sharing from an institutional perspective.

I returned to the role of Equipment Sharing Project Manager at Cambridge in January this year. One thing I was keen to learn, was how the sector and the equipment sharing movement had moved on in this period. I began by reaching out to regional and national equipment sharing consortia and key individuals across the country.

Hot topics for equipment sharing

Equipment booking systems remain a hot-topic for all the universities contacted, and seen as a way of increasing efficiency and effectiveness whilst reducing the burden on local administration. Those that hadn’t yet implemented systems were investigating the options available. This is an expanding market. Jisc produced a useful guide last year to a number of the products on the market for those wishing to learn about the options available. More solutions appear on an almost daily basis reflecting the growing interest in this area.

In terms of collaborative successes, the Royce initiative – a strategic partnership between the universities of Manchester Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College London – is now bearing fruit with Royce equipment housed within the Maxwell Centre at Cambridge becoming operational in April last year.

Equipment Sharing 3.0: Thinking of the user – who are they and what do they want from us?

On my return I was keen to action one of two surveys we administer on a local basis to contacts responsible for individual items of equipment on the Cambridge Database, and to our Small Research Facility managers. Engaging with our lab and facilities managers has been a really useful way of gaining a snapshot into the sharing activity at Cambridge. I’ve also gained feedback from users of the system as to how we can do things better.

This user-centred focus is gaining momentum. The recent UKRI Infrastructure Roadmap Survey brought user consideration to the fore as well as seeking to understand how utilisation and capacity is measured and understood:

  • Does your Research and Innovation Infrastructure (RII) have a single access point for users?
  • What is the most appropriate way of estimating the number of users that your RII has?
  • What is the most appropriate timeframe for this (annual, since records began, or something else)?
  • Using this measure, approximately how many users does your RII have?
  • How do you measure the capacity of your RII?
  • What percentage of your RII’s capacity is used?
  • What percentage of your RII’s capacity do you aim to use?
  • Use versus utilisation?

    It does seem as though the sector drivers are listening and are keen to understand how accurate, effective, and useful metrics can be developed. However, a consensus or definition of terms remains outstanding. One sector colleague observed: “Utilisation is a subjective term that can be interpreted in multiple ways, making direct comparison flawed. For example, booking a driving simulator for one week’s use, requires a week allocated to set-up, a week of client use, and a subsequent week of data analysis; does utilisation cover the whole 3-week period or the actual time of client use?”

    In the case of some microscopes, current set-ups will have to be dismantled and the required configuration assembled and calibrated. The ‘booked use’ of the microscope by the client may then take place, before the set-up is again dismantled, reassembled and recalibrated. If the associated booking system is electronic and monitors ‘actual’ use – when the user logs on to perform the desired task – it may only record actual use not total use. Again, this reinforces the need for all of us in the sector, when assessing usage and capacity, to reach consensus on what constitutes the user, utilisation, and capacity.

    Equipment inventories. Friend or foe?

    “If a local database informs a user that there are 137 HPLC systems available to them in their locality – is that useful? Or are they more interested in the highly specialised, bespoke, items of equipment?” I would suggest that the answer is likely to be a mixture of both. Considering all potential use cases and catering accordingly, rather than merely listing every item available, is the way the sector should be moving.

    Publication and equipment tagging. What’s the catch?

    A user may want to know where an item of equipment is based within and outside of their institution. To them, the number of publications associated with specific equipment may be irrelevant; merely an example of technology driving development rather than responding to a user need. And on a practical level, the lead-times associated with publication means it’s feasible an item of equipment may have become obsolete by the time publication occurs.

    However, for those involved in data acquisition and reporting – an often overlooked user base – publication tagging can be immensely useful in reporting impact for activities such as the REF. The Research Data Alliance’s Persistent Identification of Instruments Group seeks to explore a community-driven solution for the globally unique identification of active instruments in the sciences, and this linked with publication tagging could provide a powerful tool for future data analytics. This is something the User Facilities and Publications Working Group are looking at under the ORCID banner. Laurel Haak has written a compelling article on using identifiers to capture and expose facilities use . An ORCID report, entitled Findings and Opportunities, summarises the discussions around ORCID increasing data capture and reducing the reporting burden for researchers.

    Who is the audience and how can we best support them?

    Thinking about our users is central to the development of usable systems and exceptional user experiences. So, are our users internal or external individuals, internal or external research groups, or commercial entities? Are they looking to find a short-term local solution to a mechanical failure, develop a long-term collaborative relationship, or do they merely have samples that require analysis. Are they involved in reporting activities at local, regional, or national levels? Are they funder-orientated, wish to submit research proposals, and do they want to increase the awareness of their equipment or facility?

    Thinking about and speaking to each of these groups individually to help elicit their unique needs and requirements will help us develop systems that add value at the coal face. Ultimately that focus could help deliver efficiencies to local and national institutions as well as the sector as a whole.

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