Algorithm No.5 Learn To Share

THE REJECTION NOTICE FROM THE NIH WAS CLEAR. THE INVESTIGATOR’S BID FOR A TWO-PHOTON, $500,000 MICROSCOPE WAS SIMPLY TOO RISKY.

There wasn’t a demonstrated need for it. And there weren’t enough investigators who would benefit from it. But that didn’t 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 fine—if it weren’t for the $22,000-peryear maintenance costs.

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“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.”

“Our cores aren’t run on gut instinct. They’re judged by metrics of financial and temporal responsiveness.”

— Deany. L i, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Vice President for Research and Chief Scientific Officer

Cores

For the past year, Associate Dean for Basic and Translational Science Andrew S. Weyrich, Ph.D. (left), and Associate Director of the Core Resources John Phillips, Ph.D. (center), have been leading the evolution of our 16 health sciences cores, including the Cell Imaging core that Chris Rodesch, Ph.D. (right), directs. “With stronger institutional support, new opportunities for cross-disciplinary education and careful tracking of our users, we’re making our cores more data-driven and academic than ever before,” says Weyrich

Cores infographic

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.

“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.”

— Adam Frost, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, 2013 Searle Scholar and 2013 NIH Director’s New Innovator recipient

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.”

6 Ways to manage shared resources

It takes strong and consistent institutional support to create a open and collaborative research environment. Here’s how we’re doing it.

  1. BUILD A STRONG OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE — Ensure the alignment, productivity, and financial solvency of cores by forming an active umbrella committee that oversees the activities and performance of all shared resources.
  2. MAKE DATA-DRIVEN DECISIONS — Use data and analytics to understand core users, track grants, and evaluate the performance of each facility. Require thorough documentation and justification from core directors seeking institutional funding.
  3. IMPLEMENT A CENTRAL BILLING SYSTEM — Create a single administrative group to handle billing and financial reporting for each core.
  4. HIRE PH.D.-LEVEL CORE DIRECTORS — Instead of hiring technicians to manage cores, hire scientists who can teach users to make the most of the facilities and connect the scientific community in new and surprising ways.
  5. CREATE ACTIVE FACULTY ADVISORY COMMITTEES — Leverage teams of influential investigators to support the work of individual cores, assess and evaluate instrumentation needs and assist with extramural grant funding activities.
  6. HOST AN ANNUAL RETREAT — Foster deeper interaction not just within the core, but among all of the cores, by bringing together core directors and leaders throughout the institution.

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.”

“I’m crazy optimistic about the future of science. With the synergies that form in an open, collaborative environment, you’re only limited by your own imagination.”

— Andrew S. Weyrich, Ph. D., Associate Dean for Basic and Translational Sciences

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.”

Q & A

Winning the war on cancer by redesigning research

An interview with Mary Beckerle, Ph.D., CEO and Director of Huntsman Cancer Institute

  • A: Before 1971, we were looking for the single bullet, like a polio vaccine, that could eradicate cancer from the face of the earth. Then we learned more about cancer and discovered that it was actually many different diseases, and it seemed impossibly complex. Today, as we learn more about genetics, key pathways are emerging that allow us to target specifi c cancers, assess risk better and turn what was once a deadly disease into a chronic condition. Now I think everything is possible. It’s an incredibly exciting time. An absolutely unprecedented time.

  • A: No single individual or discipline has the capacity to solve the cancer puzzle. We can only do it with transdisciplinary teams made up of exceptionally talented and innovative individuals. So we have to make sure that individual expertise is notossifi ed within the walls of a single department. At HCI, we extend the talents and contributions of individuals by developing transdisciplinary teams to catalyze the highest level of achievement. We work closely with 20 departments to recruit the best team players and brightest investigators, and then generally provide half of the research startup package, as well as lab space and strong research mentoring. It’s a win-win situation.

  • A: At HCI, we have the benefi ts of being in an academic setting, which provides the raw drive, creativity, individual aspiration and academic freedom, while at the same time feeling like a biotech startup, where everyone is working toward common goals. We also have a strong culture of sharing resources, which amplifi es the impact of our investment. For example, the Utah Population Database, which has been overseen by HCI for many years, brings together genealogies with medical records and vital records like birth and death certifi cates. This remarkable database has become one of the most valuable and distinctive research resources in the country for discovery of human disease genes. Because of our genetically characterized families and the synergies that come from clinicians, scientists, and the community working together, we can do things here that can’t be done anywhere else in the world. I also think there’s something special about the way we look out at the landscape, and see opportunities instead of constraints.