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Maximising the investment in research equipment

John Kaye headshot
by
John Kaye
and
Balviar Notay

Creating a single database of available equipment could boost the societal impact of research in the UK.

Female researcher looking at a computer screen.

Over the years there has been a great deal of focus and effort on developing research infrastructure, services for research publications, and making research open; there is now an opportunity to grow the data and services around research infrastructure assets (research equipment and facilities), with the potential to provide greater transparency and value from these investments.

UK Research and Innovation’s terms and conditions of grant for research projects requires “all new equipment purchased over £138,000 to be registered on the equipment data national database”.

Jisc’s equipment data service harvests and aggregates a range of university and research facility equipment catalogues for research and enables searches across all published UK research equipment databases through one portal.

It provides an easy way for institutions to publish information about their research infrastructure assets and to comply with UKRI terms and conditions of grant. The platform is not limited to UKRI-funded research infrastructure assets: it has the potential for creating tools and services that make research more discoverable, and that provide efficiencies.

However, this does raise some challenges. How do we ensure this will work seamlessly and effectively? How do we make it easier for the sector to share more? And how do we increase the potential value of the data?

Why is sharing equipment so important?

There are economic and environmental drivers requiring the research sector to work towards more sustainable practices. Sharing of equipment between research organisations, especially high-value equipment and facilities, provides efficiencies and reduces waste.

A national asset register also increases the visibility of tools and equipment that could be beneficial to a wider group of researchers to support collaboration. This is not only beneficial to individual researchers and projects and advances in all disciplines, but also has potential for wider societal impact.

What are the problems?

There are several challenges to address before a seamless equipment sharing system begins to fully benefit the sector. There is a need to ensure institutions are aware of the policy drivers, their compliance requirements in providing data, and benefits the data creates.

The visibility of research assets is key to sharing and to support collective procurement and investment decisions, so we need to answer the question: “what does the UK own in terms of research infrastructure assets?” The current dataset does not show a complete and transparent picture of the UK equipment and facilities landscape. We need to move towards all institutions supplying current data.

From a funder perspective, beyond the policy drivers, there is a requirement for an easy way to monitor grant compliance and to reduce the auditing burden. Funders also could benefit from further efficiencies and a reduction in research bureaucracy, and to achieve their sustainability and financial goals through equipment sharing and reuse.

So how do we solve these issues?

The equipment data service centrally aggregates UK university and research organisation equipment and facilities for the purpose of sharing resources. Jisc are working to expand and improve this national asset register to include more equipment and resources as per UKRI’s funding conditions.

The service aims to help the research community find equipment and facilities across the UK. A major aim of the equipment data national database is to improve data quality, increase the number of participating institutions, and increase the usage of the site.

In parallel, the service is also exploring new features and workflows and how to make it easier for institutions to collect, manage and provide the service with data.

Improving data quality and coverage is essential to realising the value of the national register. Jisc is currently working with institutions to make providing data to the service as painless as possible.

The data opportunity

With increased coverage and quality, the national register created by the equipment data service will be able to provide a robust evidence base to support sector-wide approaches to efficiency, procurement, usage, sharing, future planning, place and investment strategies, recycling and decommissioning, and energy, costs and environmental management.

There is an opportunity to link the equipment investment inputs into research to the research outputs and publications. This could enable some evaluation of the impact of investment by linking it to traditional research metrics and could be included in research assessment exercises.

Additionally, this same link could enable greater reproducibility of research because it would allow the equipment used in research to be explicitly identified within the research outputs, increasing the provenance of the research and aiding researchers looking to replicate it.

Persistent identifiers (PIDs) for research infrastructure assets would help to realise these opportunities. PIDs would provide a consistent means of linking and expressing the relationship with research outputs, funding, and people.

The infrastructure to create these PIDs is at an early stage and the equipment data team is assessing the costs and benefits of investment in this area.

Working together

Being able to share resources is key to progression and is crucial to maximising investments in research. Some institutions are already working together through their own regional consortia for equipment sharing, such as GW4 and the N8 Research Partnership.

The equipment data platform offers an opportunity to bring this type of collaboration to a national scale.

If the equipment data service can provide a high-quality national picture, we will have the potential to work together and use this evidence base to reduce research bureaucracy in planning, buying, using, disposing and evaluating research equipment.

This work is in line with the government’s recent response to the independent review of research bureaucracy, which included recommendations that Jisc helps to improve digital platforms to reduce costs, administration and free up researchers.

These collaborations can start by providing good quality and timely information about research infrastructure assets.

If you would like to provide data to the equipment data service, or you would like to talk about your institution’s data, or have any other queries about the service please contact the equipment data team through help@jisc.ac.uk.

About the authors

John Kaye headshot
John Kaye
Head of product, digital resources
Balviar Notay
Product manager, research management