Core Facilities – Farber and Weiss Weigh In

Thank you to Richard Wintle who has provided us with this guest blog post on operating core facilities…

A recent Commentary in Science Translational Medicine by Gregory K. Farber and Linda Weiss, entitled Core Facilities: Maximizing the Return on Investment (abstract here; article is subscription-only) is an interesting read. In it, the authors outline not only some of the challenges in operating core facilities, but also in attracting and retaining the personnel required to run them.

Core facilities (and I will here provide a disclaimer: I help to manage one) can be loosely defined as labs and associated analysis personnel, funded either by an institution with the assistance of infrastructure and/or operating grants, and providing experimentation and analysis that would be very challenging, or impossible, for individual scientists to perform. At their best, they provide economies of scale, critical mass of highly trained personnel, access to instruments that are prohibitively expensive for individual labs, and the knowledge and expertise to assist in all aspects of a project’s life cycle. Cores can be targeted to specific projects, available only to investigators at a particular institution, or open to all (we’ve always favoured the fully open model, but priorities vary). The best cores help with experimental design, technology selection and experimentation, all the way through to downstream data analysis. Indeed, Farber and Weiss emphasize that “the consultation provided by core facilities is often as important as the data”, and that “informatics and biostatistics cores are key resources”.
It’s easy to imagine that such things are expensive to establish, and even more expensive to run. Even so, the revelation that in the USA alone, the NIH spends something like $900 million a year to support and use core facilities is staggering. No wonder, then, that Farber and Weiss suggest that improving efficiency is critical. They point out that existing funding mechanisms have “too often resulted in the establishment of multiple similar core facilities”, and that one key to streamlined and efficient service to the scientific community is to avoid such duplication.

Another major point of the article is that poorly-defined career paths for scientists in administrative roles, or even for technical staff, can hamper core facilities. In order to provide long-term stability, cores must be operated and managed as quasi-autonomous business units, with effective management and strategic planning far beyond single funding cycles to ensure long-term stability. That’s tricky, particularly in attracting and retaining key high- and mid-level managers who also understand the basic science – the sort of people, like myself, who might otherwise pursue a purely academic career, or move to industry.

None of this, of course, is news to those who are in the core facility game. We’ve been saying for years many of the things that Farber and Weiss articulate so nicely in their commentary, and I hope that funders and policy makers in the US and elsewhere will take note of their words. Their stated goal, to “maximize the value and accessibility of core facilities”, should be a priority for funding agencies everywhere.

[A quick tip of the hat to my colleague Ruslan for alerting me to this.]

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