Tuesday 30 August 2011

The NIH view on core facilities

A recent commentary article in Science TranslationalMedicine on core facilities is probably of interest to those other core lab directors reading my blog. I wanted to look at some of the points they raise and give my thoughts as a core facility director.

Gregory Faber from NIH and Linda Weiss from NCI have written a very nice piece on the need for efficient and organised core facilities. They outline what has been going on at the NIH to "strengthen core facilities". And discuss four focus areas; (i) information underload - making available better quality information about cores, (ii) paving the core career path - developing career paths and training for core heads, (iii) government regulation - improving understanding of regulatory requirements and (iiv) core facility fusion - aiding core centralisation and consolidation.

(i) Information underload: it needs to be easier to find information about core facilities, where they are, what services they offer etc. Of course this sounds simple, but a search on Google for 'core facility' returns 7m results, whilst the more specific 'DNA sequencing core facility' still returns 1.2m!
        There are two current databases and two new initiatives mentioned in the paper. Databases of core facilities are available from; ABRF and the Vermont Genetics Network . The new projects funded by NCRR are VIVO and eagle-i. I'd like to take the chance to mention the Google map of next-gen sequencers . This has 500 facilities on it and has not cost the American taxpayer a cent. I'd happily apply for an NIH grant to make this available under their umbrella.

(ii) Paving the core career path: Core facility heads need to receive better training in the business aspects of running an SME. There is more and more formal training for new group leaders but a core director has to work in a very different setting. There is also often no obvious career path for Core staff and they are often employed on soft money. Improvements in both of these would help to stabilise core staff.

(iii) Government regulation: Cores may have to follow government regulations on cross-charging. There are three main funding schemes in cores; reagents only, reagents + service contracts (with or without some staff time), or full economic cost recovery. It is not clear which model offers the best value for money and each can have consequences on core demands. For instance many core directors will have been faced with the need to cover costs on low demand services which results in costs increasing to a level where those services are effectively priced out of the market. This is fine from a business perspective but only if the financial aspects are being considered, there can be other important factors in keeping a service local even if demand is low. This needs to be a local decision so the local stakeholders may need to pay more.

(iv) Core facility fusion: There is little evidence to determine whether large centralised cores offer better value than small decentralised ones. The authors discuss briefly the pros and cons of different management structures, of centralisation versus distribution and the requirement of users to have a core that understand their needs. Of particular interest to the US readers is probably the discussion on consolidation of cores where the research population is low and the IDeA core labs.

Whilst the paper is written from the perspective of current funding levels and a need to save research $, £ or €, much of that discussed has probably been thought about by core facilities or their users for the past 15-20 years.

They state that access to scientific core facilities, with sophisticated instruments and experienced staff has become essential for much clinical and translational research. I'm sure anyone who has had access to a high quality core would argue this for any area of scientific research. A good core should make science easier, allowing research staff to move quickly between different and difficult techniques to get useful and robust data. As an aside I'd recommend you take a look at "What kind of core areyou"?
My summary:
The main discussion point of the paper is that cores should be run as efficiently as possible, I don't think anyone would argue with that suggestion. This requires that cores monitor and record their efficiency and have external benchmarks to compare to. I am not aware of any external benchmarking data for this purpose; perhaps we should start publishing some?

I'd add one more thing into the core facility fusion space, or even on its own; Lab management systems. LIMs are used in many vcore facilities to track samples and data generated from them. Considering the investment in current genomics technologies there is a real lack of joined-up thinking on LIMs for this. Most labs use their own in-house developed systems. Some buy commercially and a few try to instil academically developed LIMs. I think the NIH could do well to invest a few research$ into LIMs developmetnt for common technolgies.

Many cores have grown over several years and this growth may not always have been planned with ruthless efficiency. Cores can also be duplicated in a local region for multitude reasons. Maximising efficiency and minimising duplication are obvious ways to save money by having fewer, probably larger cores. However many institutes or group leaders will want to have a duplicate facility and if the funding agencies are not more ruthless in finding examples of and rejecting that duplication then it will continue.

There appears to be a cycle in core facilities similar to the mergers and breakups seen in the commercial sector. Sometimes small cores located close to research groups are in favour, a few years later and big centralised cores appear to be "de rigeur". Normally each country and technology appears to be at different parts of the cycle. The recent economic collapse seems to have pushed funding agencies to all think about saving money, and core facilities are an option along with everything else.

From my experience the medium sized collaborative core, with more than one major stakeholder, is the one that works best. Having several large investors with a real interest in the core succeeding has enabled high quality investment in equipment and staff. It has allowed us to reinvest as technology moves on. It has also provided a larger pool of users, bringing interesting science into the core and making sure we run as close to actual capacity as possible.

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