Nation level facilities, regional centres and general UK facility infrastructure WG 4th FMM

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  • Notes from breakout group “National level facilities, regional centres and general UK facility infrastructure”

Attending: Deborah Aubyn (Cancer Research UK) David Clarke (Science & Technology Facilities Council)(chair) Paul Cormack (Hamamatsu) Tjalling de Boer (Coherent UK) Kevin Mackenzie (Aberdeen) Peter O’Toole (York) Bertrand Vernay (UCL) Jo Whetstone (Olympus) Sue Wilson (Olympus)

The session opened with a discussion of what defined a national facility, and two of the major criteria were defined as open access and central funding. As an example, a brief description was given of the “Octopus” imaging facility operated by STFC in the Research Complex at Harwell. This facility operates single molecule/TIRF microscopes, multiphoton confocal, confocal FLIM/FRET microscopes, and optical tweezers. Access is by peer-review through a 6-monthly call for applications. There are no charges for users and travel and accommodation is paid. The need for National facilities was then discussed. It was felt that the current model of regional facilities operating within Universities was able to handle most of the demand for microscopy instrumentation, and that people would generally prefer to work in, or close to, their home institution because of the practicalities of, for example, long-term cell culture required for many experiments, and the need to stay at the facility for long periods. For whole animal imaging there was also the problem of transporting the animals to central facilities. However, it was felt that national facilities could be required to meet the requirements in more specialised areas, for example:

• Technology development.

• High content screening (some developments already taking place in CRUK London, and may have the potential to develop into a national facility).

• Computation/image analysis (e.g. access to infrastructure for processing and handling high volumes of data. This infrastructure exists for handling particle physics data).

• Imaging category 3/category 4 organisms (expensive and difficult to do in individual institutions).

• Correlative imaging (possible link to any national EM facility, or to more specialised techniques only possible on large scale facilities, e.g. x-ray imaging on synchrotrons).

Training was identified as an area where national facilities could have a role. The centre(s) could act as pools of expertise and spread this expertise throughout the community through the training of students, introduction of non-specialists to new techniques, and possibly running training specifically for facility managers. Any training of this nature would have to be standardised but who would set the rules? After some discussion it was thought that the RMS would be a suitable body to do this.

Facility staff might also travel to other labs to pass on expertise and establish new techniques in regional centres. Something like this is happening on a relatively limited scale through the EPSRC-funded laser loan pool, operated by STFC. This provides lasers for use in universities but also expertise in setting up the systems for imaging and spectroscopy.

The discussion then moved on to how UK facility infrastructure would be effectively supported. It was important to ensure that facility usage was encouraged where possible, avoiding duplication of instrument purchases. This might be achieved in part by funding bodies requiring the use of facilities. To do this there needs to be increased awareness of existing facilities, and a mechanism for monitoring the availability of equipment. Some sort of inventory would be required but who would maintain it? This would not be a trivial task because all microscopes are different to some extent so identifying suitability for a particular experiment might not be easy. In the end it was decided that the only practical mechanism is for universities to keep a close track of what microscopy equipment they have available, and to ensure that this equipment is made available for use by as many people as possible. Getting people to use facilities also requires those facilities to operate at a high standard. If the facilities are not good enough, people will just want to buy their own equipment.

There are generally two models for funding facilities: Core funding, where the facility is funded centrally and users are not charged, and access charging, where users are charged each time they access the facility. The group discussed the advantages and disadvantages of these models. Core funding has advantages for the facility in that there is certainty about funding. There are obviously advantages to the user as they do not have to find funding for facility charges. However, it was felt that charging for access had its advantages, as there was a strong incentive for the facility to remain competitive in order to attract customers, while users have a greater understanding of the costs involved in running facilities if they are charged to access them.

Issues associated with the use of FEC as a basis for charging were discussed. Opinion was divided on this. There was a feeling from many facility managers that charging FEC made the cost of facility access, and hence the cost of grants requiring facilities, too high, discouraging facility use. There was also a concern that money brought in through the charging of FEC might not be returned to the facility. There were a number of cases where FEC charging had been introduced, but the charges subsequently lowered to a level that users and funding bodies were prepared to pay. On the other hand, some facilities (e.g. York) have been charging FEC for some time and have not had problems, and had received additional funding as a result of the FEC income.

Upgrades to facilities were generally achieved through research grant funding, but in many cases it was possible for facilities to make a case that new equipment would be self-funding and attract sufficient users to recover costs. However, facilities were still faced with the problem of finding “up-front” funding for new equipment. There was some feeling that leasing equipment might get round this problem, and the representatives of equipment manufacturers that were present indicated that this might be an option.

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