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Defining strategies and funding models for maintaining imaging infrastructure and facilities in the UK



Microscopy and medical imaging techniques are increasingly important to the biological sciences. Access to basic imaging technologies has become a routine requirement for certain fields, and access to advanced imaging systems is becoming increasingly desirable.

The available technologies vary widely in sophistication and cost. Basic or advanced systems may be within the financial reach of individual research groups; the very high-end systems may require core funding. Imaging devices can either be reserved for the use of single groups (or accessible through arrangement with this group) or can be core purchases and form part of a facility. Such facilities in the UK vary in size from those with one or two instruments right through to large multi-instrument facilities with access to different imaging modalities and even pre-commercial technologies.

The importance of imaging to the biological sciences means that researchers need routine access to some basic (or more advanced) systems, either by having the device themselves or by having access to a local facility. Cost restrictions and the availability of the necessary skills mean that highly advanced and pre-commercial technologies are likely to be located in larger dedicated facilities.

Devices and facilities are funded in the UK through a wide variety of means. These can include: Project grants from charities, trusts and other funding bodies; capital investment funds and other related government higher education streams; direct funding from research councils and charities, etc. Continued funding for staff, service contracts, consumables, etc. must in most cases be recovered from either charges at point of use, or from funds written into grant proposals. Universities are increasingly requiring facilities to calculate the full economic costs (fEC) of running equipment, but the model is applied inconsistently, so equipment depreciation and staff costs will frequently not be included in a University’s fEC calculations. In contrast, research council units and other similar establishments will often receive a yearly budget, from which embedded imaging facilities will be directly funded.

Clearly the funding picture in the UK is very varied, and will doubtless be affected by the UK government’s comprehensive spending review in October 2010, as well as any changes to the kind of funding available from such bodies as the Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council.


To investigate strategies for organising and maintaining a sustainable infrastructure for imaging facilities that provides an optimum service for scientific research while giving the best possible return on investment


How might a distributed infrastructure providing access to a broad range of imaging techniques be organised in the UK?

A mix of sizes of facilities must be maintained so local access to essential technologies is guaranteed either in-house or at general access sites while more advanced imaging needs are catered for at a smaller number of specialist sites. The balance of small, medium and national scale facilities needs to be discussed to avoid large central facilities taking money away from established small local facilities. The current balance of small, medium and large-scale facilities in the UK, together with the technologies available to them, is only partially known. It would be useful to have this information so we can see how such facilities are currently distributed.

Smaller facilities should be available close to researchers, and will not need additional wet lab facilities. Large specialised facilities will require staff and general lab space so visiting researchers can carry out biological work near to the imaging devices.

How can the different funding streams in the UK be put to the best use in ensuring a sustainable imaging strategy?

Funding bodies should coordinate equipment calls to make best use of capital

Bulk service contracts between research councils and companies would make service contracts cheaper for facilities and avoid wasting money on equipment soon to lie idle. The number of service contracts would most likely be higher and more predictable, making the situation attractive for companies.

Bio-imaging facilities could make more efficient use of the funding available, which would be easier if there was more flexibility. Currently many bio-imaging facilities can’t apply for new equipment through grants. Rather, the case for new equipment has to go through a PI and will inevitably be a function of the PI’s agenda. One option would be for some funding to be awarded to facilities rather than individuals.

Dedicated funding should be available to promote development of specialised equipment and pre-commercial novel technologies.

How can investments be tracked in the short term and a secure return be achieved?

A new system of metrics is required for medium and large-scale facilities including a rigorous external review process, quality assurance, technical assessment and assessment of teaching and training. This should take into account the performance of suppliers (quality, service etc) and metrics on ‘user-created downtime’. Money should then go to the best performing facilities.

Equipment bought by individual research groups or that does not ‘belong’ to a facility in some other way will sometimes fall into disuse either because service costs mean it cannot be maintained in an operational state, or because the expertise needed to operate it has been lost. Facilities should be funded to supervise the running of underused ‘non-facility’ equipment as an efficient way of maximising the impact of equipment funding.

Funding for facilities/big equipment should require a business plan as part of the application. When academics are funded to buy an instrument, it could be under the condition that the instrument is going into a central facility with a business case for others to access it.

How should costs be recovered?

There should be direct funding for open access facilities covering equipment, support staff and contribution to service contracts. This should either be ‘free at point of use’ via peer review of projects, or at a limited cost to the end user. Structured charging, where different usage patterns (e.g. overnight usage) are charged at different rates, has worked well in some facilities.

It may be that access fees alone cannot pay for bio-imaging facilities and that core/indirect support is also required. Paying full economic costs access charges to a facility would typically cost academics more than buying the equipment themselves.

In what manner can industry participate in such an infrastructure?

Would a mixed open licence/commercial licence model for technology be valuable as is already established for software? Could companies save money by sharing development costs with funding bodies, which in exchange get the final product cheaper?


Continue discussions with research councils and funding bodies.

Create one or more models for future facility distribution (reference international models e.g. Denmark, Norway, Australia).

Encourage community to participate in the inventory of current facilities across the UK, currently maintained by the imaging facility at the University of York (Light, EM, Biomedical; equipment and knowhow).

Assess which current facilities are in a position to become general access or specialised sites.

Coordinate with other imaging communities (physics, materials, chemists etc).


  • Our first meeting was a break-out session of the Imaging Facility Manager Meeting 2010 in Imperial College London (7-8 Jan 2010). We tried to identify systemic problems with the current funding system (predictable shortfalls, reviewing systems) and come up with ideas how the system could be improved. We also found that an inventory of existing equipment, know-how and support staff would be helpful for coordination and planning. A summary of our discussions is available on the Meeting Website.
  • Sustainability was also discussed at the 3rd June 2010 BioImagingUK Meeting at Imperial College [[1]]
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