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Defining policies and funding models to enable long-term career development and security for personnel dedicated to development and access of the latest imaging technology


  • Martin Spitaler (Imperial College London), working group coordinator
  • Raffaella Carzaniga (Cancer Research UK)
  • Peter March (Univ. Manchester)
  • Jason Swedlow (Univ of Dundee)
  • Amanda Wilson (Queen Mary University London)
  • Paul French (Imperial College London)


The UK has invested heavily in facilities for research and clinical imaging. The range of resources and technologies available to support cutting edge research have matched that in any other country in the world. However, as imaging becomes increasingly technology-intensive, purchase of imaging instrumentation is no longer sufficient to deliver world-leading imaging-based scientific discovery. The fast technical advances in the area of imaging, particularly for life sciences, requires imaging staff that can stay up to date with the latest development and further develop and customise imaging instrumentation while making them accessible to the life scientist users. At the same time, the cost and complexity of such instrumentation increasingly puts them beyond the reach of individual research groups and so imaging facilities play a critical role in maintaining competitiveness and ensuring access to the latest technology.

Complex imaging systems must usually be administered, monitored, maintained, and sometimes run by specialist trained staff, many of whom have progressed from PhD research to a career path in imaging facilities and provide much more than a routine “technician” role. These staff often play a critical role in training users (and particularly early-career scientists) in the use and application of imaging instrumentation and thus provide a critical contribution in preparing the next generation of UK scientists. They are essential to provide the vital continuity of expertise in labs and facilities that cannot be realised through PhD students or post-docs, ensuring that technical know-how and experimental protocols are preserved and refined. Scientific productivity in image-based research thus critically depends on expert (facility) imaging staff, without whom the imaging instrumentation is almost useless and of short-lived impact.

Beyond this role in facilitating best usage of equipment, dedicated specialist staff also plays an important role in the development of biomedical imaging. The fast pace of development in this field now allows acquisition of multidimensional data in unprecedented detail and complexity, but this in turn creates unprecedented challenges when it comes to data handling, interpretation and analysis multidimensional and novel imaging modalities in multiple dimensions, or connecting imaging data with other methodologies (e.g. proteomics, metabolomics, genomics, ... as in the interdisciplinary approach of systems biology). These challenges can only be solved in a highly interdisciplinary way, and imaging facilities are in a good position to catalyse such interactions, as a meeting point for life scientists, developers, image analysis experts etc.

Despite this critical role for imaging facilities, there are significant causes for concern in terms of the career development for dedicated imaging staff working there. Imaging staff careers are often not well-managed: A lack of clear job profiles means that performance is often unmeasurable by existing standards (i.e. publications, funding for research projects), which in turn leads to a lack of recognition by scientists and academic administrators. In scientific publications facility staff typically appear in a middle-position on the author line, in the acknowledgments or (regularly) not at all, depriving them of the only generally recognised measurable of success. This situation makes bioimaging facility staff vulnerable towards university planning and funding bodies keen to save money.

The undervaluation of imaging staff has also contributed to an increasing mismatch between imaging expertise and purchasing decisions. In too many cases, instrumentation is sought, funded, and purchased, without concern for scientific support personnel, thus compromising the value of the original funding investment. With the ever increasing sophistication and complexity of “premier league” bioimaging instrumentation and associated software tools, it is vital to establish higher-powered career tracks for imaging staff that utilise and enhance their ongoing academic and technical development, recognising their critical roles in world-class research teams. Such staff should actively contribute to strategic decisions concerning research direction, management and investment priorities and should be encouraged to network with peers in international leading imaging centres.

The lack of a bioimaging career profile also means that these highly skilled jobs remain largely under the radar of young people looking for a career in science. Talented university students usually decide between a career in academic research or in business, work as an imaging expert in a bioimaging facility is not part of the general awareness. For interested people, the lack of formal training and long-term job perspective can be off-putting. The salaries can also be as low as the job recognition, making it harder again to recruit talented, dedicated people.


Identification of clear job profiles for bioimaging facility staff

As detailed above, many of the worries regarding bioimaging facilities could be alleviated by clear career profiles. Such identifiable job profiles for bioimaging facility staff would help universities and funding bodies with strategic planning, give long-term stability to facilities and staff alike, broaden the options for dedicated people and make these careers more attractive to talented young people.

A career profile for bioimaging facility staff will need to comprise basically three steps:

  1. How to become an imaging expert?
  2. What is expected from bioimaging facility staff?
  3. Where on from here? Development opportunities for bioimaging staff and contribution to other areas

1) How to become an imaging expert?

Currently, virtually all imaging facility people end up in this position ad hoc, out of personal interest and motivation. The way facility staff are recruited and organised within various academic institutions is highly variable, but often unsatisfactory: Highly skilled people, often on PhD level and / or with extensive research experience, are recruited ad hoc on the basis of short-term contracts, without a clear job description which would allow to evaluate their performance as a basis of long-term employment.

To improve the situation, dedicated training programs should allow interested people to actively build on a bioimaging facility career. Formalised training curricula and degrees would on one hand improve the career perspectives of prospective imaging experts, and on the other hand guarantee a quality standard for bioimaging facilities, which in turn would help funding bodies focus their funding.

Very importantly, a formalised training would also allow bioimaging staff to branch out or move on to more research-related jobs or to businesses working in the pharmaceutical, technological or software industries, thus providing desperately needed expertise.

Given the highly interdisciplinary nature of the job, training will need to cover a large range of areas, from basic knowledge in biology and medicine, sample preparation, microscope technology (optics, lasers), sensor technology (cameras, PMTs), computer technology, photo-chemistry and photo-physics, image processing, people management, user training and many more.

Therefore, the most adequate a form of training is likely to be a modular system of specific training courses, to allow gradual development of bioimaging expertise, starting from an academic background early on in the career. One possibility could be to provide training in basic bioimaging skills as open courses aimed both at young scientists and facility staff, and dedicated facility staff training provided either in dedicated courses or an academy. Beyond this basic training, ongoing training should become a normal part of the working life and financial planning in bioimaging facilities.

The details of such a training system will need to be specified by the general bioimaging training initiatives, and equally embedded in the financial planning of universities and facilities, as covered in the respective working groups (Training and Sustainability).

2) What is expected of bioimaging facility staff?

The requirements for dedicated bioimaging facility staff comprise a wide range of skills, including, amongst others:

  • thorough understanding of the biomedical scientific background
  • hands-on experience in the handling of biomedical samples, sample preparation, live imaging, growth conditions for various organisms, …
  • thorough understanding of the physics and technologies underlying bioimaging techniques
  • hands-on experience with a variety of bioimaging devices
  • experience in people management and training
  • user advice from experiment planning to data analysis and presentation
  • involvement in the development and implementation of new technologies
  • interaction with other facilities
  • image analysis, from basic programming and software tools to computer vision and multidimensional data analysis

While most facility staff will need a good basic understanding of most areas, larger facilities will allow or require individual people to develop special expertise in specific areas, through personal engagement or dedicated training modules. Job profiles will therefore need to accommodate various degrees of expertise and specialisation, from basic technical staff helping with maintenance and support of specific bits of equipments to the general facility manager covering most aspects to specialised technical staff working on the leading edge of bioimaging developments.

One problem with the variety of aspects of facility jobs is that most of the skills and tasks will not directly result in publications or funding, hence are not covered by established measurable in the scientific world. Currently, the degree to which facilities fulfil these requirements is mostly based on the personal motivation of the people working in the facility. While many facilities nevertheless developed incredible levels of expertise and quality of service, new measurable of performance will be needed, to allow universities and funding bodies to maximise their investments, to allow facilities to prove their quality towards those institutions (and thus stabilise them in the long term) and not least to allow dedicated staff to build on their personal investment and success.

3) Where to from here? Embedding facility jobs in the normal career path in bioimaging

At the moment, facility jobs often appear as an accidental side-product of academic or pharmaceutical research. On one hand, the path towards facilities is hardly defined, as outlined above. On the other hand, it is also seen as a one-way street, linked to a loss of income, status, recognition and career perspectives. At the same time, dedicated expertise in biomedical imaging is desperately needed both in academia and business, with research scientists unable to keep up with the fast expending development in the area and companies (pharmaceutical, microscope manufacturers, imaging software) struggling to recruit qualified people. It is hoped that formalised training will alleviate this problem to a large degree, stimulating the lateral mobility of bioimaging facilty people as well as their career progression into new academic or commercial areas. However, this important issue should be further pushed by specific advertising to upcoming young academics, new links (e.g. joint trainings) between academia and business, better cooperations between various bioimaging areas and between academia and business. BioimagingUK and Eurobioimaging will hopefully be the essential catalysers for this development.

Bioimaging facility in the planning strategies of of universities and funding bodies

Once the roles of bioimaging facilities are better defined, job profiles created and performance criteria established, facility staff should be finally become a normal part of the planning strategies of universities and funding institutions. Expert support staff should be regarded as an integral part of scientific expertise, as important as (and mediating between) the most sophisticated equipment and successful research scientist. This will need to be reflected in the financial planning, where long-term funding must provide stability for facility staff their accumulated expertise.


We propose the following improvements:

Funding bodies should:

  • make support staff an essential part of their science infrastructure funding strategy;
  • for all major infrastructure funding, require a business plan for its long-term support;
  • require the inclusion of a sufficient number of long-term positions for support staff, the funding of which should be a normal part of the grant application;
  • where community access to specialized instrumentation is proposed, funding for staff to support use by external visiting scientists is requested and,provided where justified
  • give clear priority for the funding of large pieces of imaging equipment to dedicated central facilities over individual groups or senior PIs with no long-term plan and staff for the maintenance and running of the instruments. This is in order to guarantee the optimal use and exploitation of high-end systems in central facilities by expert staff

Institutions should:

  • make 'staff scientists' a normal part of their research strategy
  • have a long-term plan for the career structure, mentoring, and development of support staff, that recognizes contribution and performance outside the traditional university roles of primary research and teaching; this should include the consideration of open-ended employment contracts for core staff to guarantee the continuity of imaging facilities
  • include facility staff in strategic planning
  • plan for continuity, as staff inevitably turnover, so that practical experience and knowledge can be transferred from older to younger staff and students

Both should:

  • identify facility staff as an essential strategic investment to maximise the return on their respective investments
  • make facility staff as an essential part of their business plan
  • realise and support the important role of facility staff for training, education, outreach and potentially connections to the business world
  • create new benchmarks to review the performance of facilities, and most importantly, scientific technicians and officers; such measurables could include training, education, outreach, involvement in research projects etc.
  • devise novel approaches for continuity and training, e.g., younger technical staff that are already experienced to an extent, but still have at least (10yrs?) before they retire, could spend (a month?) at a different facility to their own, apprenticed to a senior/v.experienced staff member, learning a new specific skill or set of related skills. The training would be one-to-one, and be more in-depth and 'on-the-job' than a course-based approach; in other words, a genuine opportunity for transfer of advanced/specialised skills
  • collaborate to define a new method of evaluation that defines value in publications beyond the traditional first author/senior author delineation and includes a broader set of indicators of performance and contribution, e.g.
usage of equipment
number and quality of projects performed
trainings and general education on new developments
access to the general scientific community
implementation of new techniques
standardised user feedback (many added values are hard to quantify otherwise)
outreach activities


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