When we talk about research and innovation in higher education, rarely is the topic of equipment sharing high on the agenda. Whilst equipment sharing is not a new concept, it is time we started thinking about it differently.
Sharing state-of-the-art analytical equipment, computing power and collections has been at the core of Midlands Innovation, a collaboration between eight research intensive universities in the Midlands. Since its inception in 2015, sharing knowledge and assets has been the foundation on which the partnership was built fostering a healthy culture of collaboration.
The Midlands is home to incredible research facilities which have played a major role in some pioneering initiatives such as the Geo-energy testbed and the Energy Innovation Centre. Impressive facilities and research infrastructure are spread right across the Midlands, from the state-of-the-art microscopy systems in several universities, to the special collections many institutions house.
But it’s important to note that it isn’t just the exotic and expensive equipment that gets shared. Electron microscopy equipment and other facilities which fall within the £50k to £1m range are some of the most popular instruments that are shared because of their versatile use. There is so much more to equipment sharing than the apparatus.
Our expert technicians are the people who maintain, repair and teach researchers and students how to use the equipment safely. On top of this, they are often leaders in their fields, providing advice on sample preparation, performing data analysis and directly contributing to research papers and grant applications.
Successful equipment sharing goes beyond simply providing access. With complicated, unique and niche equipment, it is often about talking to a researcher to understand what they want to find out and then running experiments and providing data analysis.
The technical community plays a critical role in this, they know what questions to ask and - as a result - are ultimately the driving force behind successful shared access. They enable our research and maximise what we can obtain from our infrastructure.
Piloting technician-led equipment sharing
It would seem natural that these technical experts should be the ones who drive our equipment sharing for the sector. However, until now it has often been the role of our academic staff to demonstrate what is available at an institution and encourage sharing of equipment.
Bringing together the equipment, in conjunction with the technical expertise and knowledge, can improve research outcomes and collaborations; something we are piloting in the Midlands currently.
Through TALENT, our Technician Led Equipment Sharing Initiative we have empowered our technical community to actively advertise what facilities and expertise they have available. Across our eight institutions, 71 facilities have shared details on what they have, who to contact for enquiries and where to find out more in an equipment sharing brochure.
This extra detail and up-to-date contact information offers much more than a standard asset database which allows researchers to contact the technical expert directly for advice.
New research collaborations and creating resilience
We have hosted two highly subscribed equipment sharing calls, where researchers across Midlands Innovation can request funds to sustainably access these facilities via our technical community.
This has led to a diverse range of new research and the case studies and learnings from this project will be shared widely with the sector to encourage best practice.
As a result, the technician community across the Midlands has started to develop an expanding equipment network which supports the wider research taking place across our partner universities.
Technicians can facilitate and signpost researchers to another university which has the best equipment for the job. It also adds resilience to the network and allows research to continue if one piece of equipment is out of use temporarily within a university; our technicians can suggest using the same equipment within the network.
Regular events for technicians like the Higher Education Technicians Summit (HETS) and Technician Commitment events provide opportunities to network and share best practice around equipment sharing within research and higher education.
Sharing technical insight
The Midlands Innovation TALENT programme is leading a Policy Commission that will highlight the future need for technical talent in higher education and research. Already there are some strong themes emerging around demographics, practice, perception, career pathways and policies thanks to in-depth research within the sector.
The recommendations, which are expected to be published in autumn 2021, will help shape the future role of technicians in higher education and research and play a major role in the economy’s post-pandemic recovery.
It’s likely that technicians’ roles in equipment sharing and shaping new research collaborations will evolve and strengthen the UK’s ambition to become a world-leading science superpower.
This example of best practice supports our Research and Innovation Strategy 2021-2023 which is looking to improve the ‘recording of the UK’s ‘research estate’ in support of a UK-wide research capability’