Our next case study takes the point of view of a facility manager from University of Bath, Dr Anneke Luben, on equipment sharing.
Dr Lubben is a Mass Spectrometrist and Head of the Material and Chemical Characterisation Facility (MC2) at the University of Bath. This was formed from a merger between the Chemical Characterisation and Analysis Facility (CCAF) and the Microscopy and Analysis Suite (MAS). This facility offers a wide range of services and has a hugely diverse user base, from undergraduates to professors, internal University of Bath users and external commercial users. In addition to equipment, the facility is staffed with instrument specialists and experts in scientific analysis, covering a diverse range of applications. This expertise covers the end-to-end workflow of research from method development and sample preparation to analysis, processing and interpretation.
The CCAF has been running for 5 years and hosts 50+ instruments, covering the routine as well as the cutting edge. The equipment includes mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance, X-ray diffraction, and materials characterisation.
Some “fundamental underpinning kit” is duplicated across other HEIs, as it is used heavily and requires local access, with local researchers ideally having ready access. In contrast, the Dynamic Reaction Monitoring Facility (or DReaM), was established and opened in November 2017 with significant Strategic Equipment funding from EPSRC, and “combines a unique selection of state-of-the-art analytical equipment which will enable researchers to analyse complex chemical reactions as they happen in many different ways, and simultaneously.” Anneke herself is a co-investigator and senior instrument specialist for this equipment.
Finding the equipment
While local staff from the University of Bath often phone Anneke to ask questions about the range and availability of equipment, a primary source for other researchers is the GW4 portal that provides an equipment database powered by Jisc equipment.data. Anneke describes how researchers can use the portal to do a quick check and see if the equipment they need is listed as being available within the facility. The equipment can be found in both the GW4 and Jisc services, for example the Bruker 500 MHz and Agilent 500 MHz High field NMR or Microcalorimetry instruments.
Accessing the equipment
Different means of accessing the equipment reflect the diverse user base. There are those who submit their samples to an open access instrument which emails through a summary of the results; through those who submit their samples for an analysis service by the specialist staff produce standard and bespoke graphical and numerical outputs which they then interpret further; to those who spend a week at the instrument for in-depth method development and sample analysis.
Anneke explains that sending the sample to an external service often doesn’t result in the best quality data outputs. The acquisition method on the instrument and subsequent data interpretation approaches can be critical to the nuances being teased out. Sample preparation often needs to be optimized, and the instrument specialists talk to the researchers a lot to provide guidance on framing the research question. They would also discuss further aspects of sample preparation and analysis before they use the equipment, greatly influencing the resulting data quality.
For these reasons the facility prefers researchers to come to site with their samples and to work with the instrument specialists to acquire the most appropriate data, but this can also cause problems. External researchers and visitors may not be insured to be on site, or if a machine breaks while a sample is running questions could arise over who is liable for the cost. Other factors include ownership of the data, access to the data and associated data processing tools, and responsibility for archiving or deletion of it.
Who are the facility users?
A wide range of users have visited the facility or used it remotely. These include universities who are less research focused and may not have local access to the specialist equipment. An example is the University of the West of England who have researchers from the Department of Applied Science, and Architecture and the Built Environment using the facility.
In other cases, even though a local university may have similar equipment, the research may require a specialist technique that (MC2) can support with their staff expertise. One example is a particular methodology using a non-destructive sample preparation technique for DNA. In that situation, a cross-disciplinary research project working across biosciences and engineering at Swansea University saw a PhD student discuss sample preparation at length with the facility staff before sending test samples, and then attending to conduct the actual experiment. This formed another of our equipment sharing cases studies.
Further afield, researchers from both Cork and Maynooth Universities have requested access to equipment when their own instruments have been unavailable for maintenance or repair. Some of the equipment is unique and therefore attracts a lot of interest from academia and industry well beyond UK borders.
Are there barriers for the facility in equipment sharing?
Anneke is clear about some of the difficulties they face when trying to encourage or implement equipment sharing. In some cases the information on the sharing service is out of date and multiple owners/contact people make it difficult to implement changes. The question of who should be the named contact for the individual equipment is also open to discussion, whether it is best to be the facility manager, or an instrument specialist for example.
The information provided about each piece of equipment may not be consistent, or possibly not the level of detail required to enable a researcher to know if it is suitable for their research. In other cases users from other areas (including industry) may be using different search terms to look for equipment.
Anneke has been involved in attempts within the GW4 group to investigate the usage of consistent and effective search terms and other good practice with equipment sharing. This included considering aspects of central contact points, agreements between facility providers for times of local equipment breakdowns or excessive demand, charges, insurance and legal issues. However, the complexity of some of the issues is itself a barrier to moving forward on the agenda. Charges are a good example, where even though the standard TRAC methodology is in use, different interpretations of what costs to include in charge out rates can lead to cost competition between facilities.
Benefits and the future
Despite the challenges, Anneke is very supportive of the principles of equipment sharing and the use of equipment sharing services. She explained the need to clearly identify the benefits to research as a way of establishing commitment to the vision. Shopping around to find the cheapest equipment for example can undermine the quality of the research output, where the support of specialists in instrumentation and methods are critical to the success of the project.
Anneke sees the arrangement as more of a collaboration. The researcher and instrument specialist work together to find the best ways to set up, analyse and interpret the results, to go from samples, through data, to publishable information.