The rejection notice from the NIH was clear. The investigator's bid for a two-photon, $500,000 microscope was simply too risky. There wasnt a demonstrated need for it. And there werent enough investigators who would benefit from it. But that didnt stop Chris Rodesch, Ph.D. He pulled together $160,000 from the University of Utah and spent the next four years building the instrument himself. His DIY plan might have worked out fineif it werent for the $22,000-per-year maintenance costs.
“The NIH was right,” says Rodesch of the grant rejection nearly 10 years ago. “It was too much of an undertaking for one person to maintain.”
Today, as scientific instruments become more complex, powerful and expensive to maintain—and with the NIH forced to cut $1.55 billion from its budget for 2013—independent-minded plans like Rodesch’s are even less viable. If it didn’t seem like an intuitively good idea before now, economics have made sharing a basic necessity for survival. Yet figuring out how to manage core research facilities effectively—and inspiring the community to use them to their fullest potential—remains a challenge at many institutions, including ours.
The first barrier to overcome is a mind-set. The idea of sharing lab space and equipment can feel forced to investigators who’ve built their careers in the intensely competitive world of academic science. “Everything is set up to reward individualism,” says Vivian S. Lee, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., senior vice president of University of Utah Health Sciences. “Tenure reviews are about you, not your team. The Nobel Prize is given to one or two people, not 20.”
While a few investigators balk at the idea of shared resources, most appreciate that for a relatively small loss of autonomy and convenience, shared resources expand their discovery capabilities enormously. “Some people think we’re being too controlling,” says John Phillips, Ph.D., associate director of core resources for health sciences. “But the majority of faculty appreciate that we’re making world-class technology cost-effective and 100 percent available to the masses.”
PROVIDING OPEN ACCESS FOR ALL
Ten years later Rodesch finally has his two-photon microscope and a comprehensive maintenance contract along with five fluorescent microscopy instruments and an automated microscope for live cell imaging. His conversion from a renegade researcher building his own scientific instruments to a full-fledged believer in shared resources and large-scale collaboration is complete. He’s now the director of the University’s Cell Imaging Core Facility, which provides services to 66 research groups and supports the work of 73 NIH grants.
Rodesch subscribes to the foundational philosophy at the University of Utah that cores are open to everyone. While the power scientists at other academic medical centers often maintain their stronghold on the institution’s resources, at Utah playing favorites is not allowed. “Not only does that hinder discovery, but since most scientific equipment in academia is publicly funded by taxpayer dollars, it’s unethical to limit access to a chosen few,” says Dean Y. Li, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice president for research and chief scientific officer.
On any given day at our 16 health sciences core facilities, there may be high school students and undergrads, drug developers and venture capitalists, engineers and biologists, and investigators studying everything from cancer to diabetes to cardiology. “You’re not at a disadvantage if you’re a graduate student from the School of Engineering,” says Rodesch. “No one is ever restricted from using our core facilities.”
Our strong tradition of cores has enabled us to box above our weight, recruiting some of the best scientists and doing groundbreaking, even Nobel-prize-winning, research. We consistently hear from new recruits that the core facilities are a factor that influenced their decision to come to Utah. “There are two things that are rare here—the accessibility of the cores and the cost structure,” says Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., professor of medicinal chemistry, who came to Utah from University of California, San Diego. “We also have experts running the facilities.”
GIVING GENEROUS INSTITUTIONAL SUPPORT — BUT NO BLANK CHECKS
By purchasing scientific instruments that new recruits need and putting them into our cores, the entire research community benefits. “It’s a win-win structure,” says Andrew S. Weyrich, Ph.D., professor of internal medicine, who this past year took over leadership of the cores in his new role as associate dean for basic and translational sciences. Strong institutional support makes it possible to create cutting-edge cores at a mid-sized academic medical center like ours. In 2013, the University provided approximately $1.2 million toward the $4.9 million core budget, which Lee calls a “bargain” because of how efficiently the money is used.
The key to this efficiency lies in centralized financial management. Service rates for each core are set and routinely reviewed by a management accounting team. Accounts receivable are processed monthly, and then financial reports are sent to each core director. Budgets can even be reviewed in real time, so that no one is ever left in the dark about how money is being spent. At the end of each fiscal year, a faculty advisory committee reviews each budget and makes a recommendation for how much institutional support it should receive in the coming year. “Our cores aren’t run on gut instinct,” says Li. “They’re judged by metrics of financial and temporal responsiveness.”
In addition, this year, Weyrich, Phillips and their team created an annual report, a transparent and open document that allows anyone to review and analyze the value that each core provides to the research community. “With these tools, we’ve created an environment of continuous monitoring,” says Weyrich. “This allows us to build on our successes, reinvest in the cores according to the value they deliver, and correct deficiencies as they arise.”
SHARING MORE THAN JUST MICROSCOPES
Running cores efficiently is just a means to an end, which is to create a vibrant hub—the equivalent of a high-tech, scientific mosh pit—that brings investigators together and provides them with the best tools available and the training to work at the highest level. As several fields are undergoing scientific revolutions because of advances in technology, educating the community about the availability and power of the tools is key. “If you’re not aware of what technology exists and what you can do with it, or if you don’t have access to it, it completely constrains the kinds of questions you ask and the problems you tackle,” says Mary Beckerle, Ph.D., CEO and director of Huntsman Cancer Institute, which houses six core facilities.
The same principles that guide our basic science cores also apply to our recently-renewed NIH-funded Center for Clinical and Translation Science (CCTS), which comprises eight service cores. CCTS connects investigators with clinical practitioners, public health personnel, other health care institutions, patients and research participants and formally links research activities across systems.
It’s this collaborative nature, and the expertise of the core directors, that has impressed Adam Frost, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry, who came to Utah from Yale and University of California, San Francisco. “What’s definitely true about our cores is that they’re run by experts who, rather than having a figure-it-out-yourself attitude toward new instrumentation, are readily available to train and supervise new users,” he says. Frost, who this year was named a Searle Scholar and received an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, uses five of the cores, but his work depends most heavily on state-of-the-art electron microscopy (EM) and computationally intensive image analysis.
Frost is excited about building a core to match the revolutionary science that’s happening in his field and feels the institutional support has been “terrific.” This past year, he’s worked with core leadership to recruit a new director for the EM core, acquire a new instrument, and, most importantly, connect with parallel computing resources on the main campus (the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute and the Center for High Performance Computing). “Now we have collaborations with both of those resources, which has been a real boon,” says Frost.
It’s that kind of continual education and interplay between cores, researchers, clinicians and institutions nationwide that Weyrich believes has the potential to transform discovery. “I’m crazy optimistic about the future of science,” says Weyrich. “With the synergies that form in an open, collaborative environment, you’re only limited by your own imagination.”