Published: Jan. 2, 2018

December 14, 2017

Academic Futures Open Forum: Research Infrastructure

Moderator:      Jeff Cox


Points made and issues raised included:

  1. Funding model/processes for labs
    1. Need to look at a funding model where the focus is on serving the scientific and educational needs rather than running a lab “like a business”.  We are continually having to “charge” each other even just when we need to consult with lab/equipment experts.  This decreases the likelihood of creativity and trying new things.
    2. Need to fund research infrastructure and staff for the longer-term, beyond the first few years of initial support.  There is currently no identified path (who to go to, process to follow) to request more funding beyond those first few years.
    3. Need to find/create funding mechanisms beyond just grants, especially for labs and equipment that can be used for various educational opportunities.
    4. Each lab seems to follow different processes around requests and reporting causing confusion and frustration.  Need to standardize.
    5. Financial model is very confusing and hard to explain to new faculty.  It’s hard to understand the vision and how to meet it.
  2. Staffing model for labs
    1. We need appropriate staffing levels so that scientists can focus more time on research rather than managing infrastructure needs.  Hiring staff is actually a cost avoidance issue when it comes to labor costs of scientists.
    2. We need to staff the laboratories appropriately as the labs/equipment become underutilized when we are not staffed appropriately. 
    3. Finding and retaining staff to manage and maintain advanced instrumentation is difficult – need focus on retention and career path for lab staff and keep the intellectual expertise on campus. The advanced instrumentation that pushes the envelope requires special knowledge.
    4. Losing a staff person results in “job creep” for the other members in the department, including “jobs” that are not our core knowledge, such as IT.
    5. Need to create a campus-wide cohort/community for lab staff to increase communication and knowledge about what we have and how it can be better utilized.
  3. “Centralized” model of research infrastructure
    1. “Centralized” can mean both co-located equipment/facilities, as well as centralized management/support/availability for equipment located elsewhere. 
    2. Many research labs have very unique needs.  But having some centralized support on how to create a lab (overhead, pricing structures, pricing sheets, other forms/reports) can help immensely. 
    3. Centralized facilities – standard processes, easier/centralized space planning & renovations, reduce startup cost/time for new labs.  A centralized facility may be a cost, but also brings in grants that we only got because of the facility.
    4. Staffing – qualified research staff can help manage, run and maintain equipment, learning/growth opportunities for staff, staff can help teach PI’s on equipment use, sample preparation, etc.
    5. Center of intellectual activity – easier to connect and consult with other researchers and departments
    6. Management & maintenance – centralized/better management of equipment service contracts, provide tech support to other labs, “end of life” for outdated equipment, knowing what we already have and where it is so we don’t buy more, savings on collective purchasing when possible.
    7. Break down silos, reduce duplication – departments are not allowed to use other departments’ equipment, which means we have to purchase/maintain it ourselves, build our own labs, etc.  This is unnecessary cost to the university.
    8. Better equipment – pooling our infrastructure dollars means we could buy better equipment that makes us more efficient, saves lab space, and meets needs of several PI’s/departments.  We currently want fierce autonomy over our own money, but we end up with duplicate “less-good” equipment.
    9. R1 competitiveness - the expectations from funding agencies have changed and require certain infrastructure and collaborative characteristics to already be in place.  This is also important for attracting and retaining top graduates.  We are behind the curve.
    10. Standardization – allows standardization for funding models, processes, staff titles and compensation, etc.
    11. Increase sharing/utilization of equipment
      1. Next-gen scientists are not getting funded as much as our senior scientists.  Sharing equipment (and policies/culture to do so) could move everyone further.
      2. PI’s can save money and avoid buying unnecessary equipment by finding equipment that is already in place.
    12. Benefit to the community
      1. Startup packages and offer letters need to include a strategy on how it benefits the whole CU community, not just “what I need for my lab”.  Need to buy to benefit the greater community, not just one PI.
      2. Access to labs and sharing equipment benefits the undergraduate research mission – helps students understand how science is done, experts teaching students.  Students come here because they get to use state of the art equipment and work with world-class researchers.