Why is expensive research equipment not always used to its full potential? This blog explores some of the challenges to sharing equipment more frequently.
What is the most effective way to make money from an expensive asset, such as a house or a car? It’s sharing - listing your spare room on Airbnb, for example, car-pooling or even selling a passenger seat on your daily commute.
Similarly, universities and research organisations are recognising the benefits of sharing expensive equipment such as MRI scanners, genome sequencers, super-computers and satellites. But, despite support for this concept from institutional leaders and research funders, a recent Jisc survey (pdf) found that there are a range of barriers which mean that sharing is still not as common as it could be.
Many funders require universities and other research institutions to maximise the use and visibility of publicly funded research assets. These requirements prompted the establishment in 2014 equipment.data.ac.uk, the national academic equipment data portal, developed by the University of Southampton with support from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and now operated for the research community by Jisc.
A national equipment database
Equipment.data now provides detail and contact information for more than 17,000 items of equipment at 57 research institutes and universities, like the Nikon super-resolution imaging system at the University of Manchester and the DNA Foundry at Imperial College.
However, in the survey by Jisc of the equipment sharing portal’s users, half of the 108 respondents said their equipment was shared less than five times a year.
Several reasons emerged for this and one common factor, given by 22 per cent of respondents, was that equipment’s owners had not given enough information about what they were offering and how it could be used. Some microscopes, for example, need specialised and time-consuming preparation and calibration before they can be used; some analyses can only be run on a specific make and model of a piece of kit.
From supercomputers to flume cupboards
Many institutions are deploying lab management systems which include booking and scheduling components which could make it easier to organise sharing of a facility both internally and externally.
Ideally these would permit “self-service” bookings by researchers, however the responses to the Jisc survey showed that careful attention needs to be paid to those cases where a technician needs additional time to prepare the equipment to ensure that equipment is properly set up in time for use.
One respondent, Chris Wilkinson, equipment-sharing project manager at Cambridge University highlighted this issue, along with the need for consensus on how to define, record and measure users, utilisation and capacity in equipment sharing.
A significant factor, mentioned by 14 per cent of respondents, is that not enough institutions offer their equipment for sharing. Coverage can also be somewhat variable, with some institutions listing only equipment valued over the European Journal (OJEU) threshold of £138,000, as required by the EPSRC. Other institutions have taken a more comprehensive approach, listing everything from supercomputers to fume cupboards.
Of the other barriers mentioned by respondents, the most significant was simple ignorance of the equipment database, equipment.data. For example, when Sarah Aldridge, a PhD student at Swansea University wanted help analysing DNA samples from the remains from Henry VIII’s sunken flagship the Mary Rose, she asked around. Colleagues recommended the Chemical Characterisation and Analysis Facility at Bath University. The facility was listed on the portal, but Aldridge did not know the portal existed.
Geography is another factor. Most equipment sharing happens locally, to save time and money on travel. However, for research where the investigator only needs the resulting dataset, more remote sharing is feasible, with data delivered via Jisc’s Janet Network, which connects UK universities and research organisations. Regional research consortia such as the GW4 alliance, Science and Engineering South (SES) consortium and Midlands Innovation also have their own view of showing equipment.data and their portfolio equipment available to researchers and industrial collaborators.
Researchers can also sometimes be territorial about their equipment. Antony Jones, head of infrastructure and facilities for the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Birmingham University, says that encouraging equipment and facility sharing is sometimes like “pushing a rock up a hill”.
Even though senior management, at pro-vice-chancellor level, support sharing, the Jisc survey shows that it is still the case that researchers and lab managers are not wholly signed up. Many are protective of what they perceive to be “their” kit and worry that sharing it will limit their own use. There is also concern over who pays for repairs if equipment is damaged by a user from another organisation, and who is responsible for running and maintenance costs. Organisations sharing their equipment want to pass on these costs to visiting academics and research groups.
The double VAT trap
Universities can create cost sharing groups (CSGs) to supply VAT-exempt services to other member organisations, by setting up separate CSG company that exists outside each university’s VAT group. But as most funded capital equipment must be owned by a university, this prohibits the CSG from owning equipment. And leasing equipment to a company outside a VAT group incurs VAT. The N8 group of research-intensive universities reported that they had found these barriers insurmountable.
Whilst many of the barriers we have looked at in this article are ultimately down to the institutions themselves to work around, this is a problem that only central government can resolve.