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Major challenges for core facilities in modern research
In a world where research uses more and more technologies from different disciplines, technology platforms have become critical for the achievement of scientific projects. Core facilities are offering services which facilitate the collaboration between scientists and enable access to advanced technologies essential to modern research.
In this context, what are the main challenges facing core facilities ?
This post is shedding a light on our views.
Deliver quality services under tight timelines
Technology platforms are intended to provide expertise and advice on the use of a specific technology in a research project.
For this, it is necessary that they reach a critical size to allow the flexible deployment of staff and equipment in order to offer a range of services in a short time.
Implementing adapted tools is essential to improve the competitiveness of their service portfolio along two essential dimensions: time and quality.
Manage a high volume of users
Many scientists from various fields, from different laboratories, companies or institutes, may use the services and technologies offered by core facilities.
User management is therefore an important issue for a platform, so that they can access the services offered under conditions of satisfactory performance, confidentiality, security, availability and ease of use.
Optimize back office work
A study conducted in 2016 among approximately 300 platform managers identified the burden of administrative tasks as one of their main challenges.
For example, billing can quickly become a nightmare for platform managers. This is explained by the various methods of billing and payment that can be found, depending on who are the users, their organization and/or the financing scheme of their projects. Therefore, it is critical for the development of a core facility to contain the administrative workload by setting up operational and financial processes and procedures and automate them whenever possible.
Finance and maintain cutting-edge technology
To stay at the forefront of technology, expertise and methods in a given scientific field, technological investments are relatively heavy. Indeed, the acquisition, maintenance and upgrades of scientific equipment require a substantial budget.
There must be a sustainable financing plan:
- Maintenance contracts or repairs;
- New software tools;
- Data storage ;
- Computing capacity;
In addition, research projects sometimes involve immature technologies. Subsidizing the first projects, for example in partnership approaches, becomes necessary to take full advantage of the potential of these new technologies and accelerate their deployment.
The ability of research institutions to develop and monetise the service portfolio of their technology platforms, in the context of partnerships or services provided for industrial companies, is a key parameter in their financial and strategic plans.
Optimize the management of scientific projects
Technology platforms streamline their service offerings around standard procedures for profitability and efficiency. But they must also be able to respond to “tailor-made” projects, implementing specific protocols.
In general, a project starts with the receipt of a sample and ends with the sending of the data to the user. However, many workflows are added to this usual process that allow platform staff and researchers to address the complex experimental issues that often arise:
- Which technology is the best fit for a given project?
- What types of controls to perform to achieve meaningful results? How often ?
- How should the sample be acquired and prepared for the chosen technology?
Platform teams are involved in the project from the earliest stages of planning and design. In addition, the platforms are also responsible for providing articles illustrating data analyzes for the purpose of publishing them.
In some areas, standards such as ISO 9001 must be respected to ensure the quality and conformity of the services and results achieved.
Finally, the management of laboratory information is also an issue for technology platforms. Indeed, it is essential to keep lasting and reliable records of experiences and results, as well as to facilitate their communication. However, due to the lack of digital tools (paper lab books are still popular, for example), archiving, monitoring of experiments and transmission of results to researchers are not always done correctly and timely. This is a critical issue for traceability, quality, reliability of results and knowledge capitalization through protocol reuse.
Attract and retain talents
World-class universities are defined by a critical mass of talent among faculty, technology experts and students. In order to attract the best available talents, universities and research institutions must provide a global environment fostering advanced learning and research.
For this, it is imperative that they provide academic freedom in teaching and research by allowing, for example, young researchers to run their own laboratories. But above all, they must have sufficient resources at the edge of technology.
Recruiting staff to deploy and exploit platform technologies is therefore essential, but not always easy. The profiles sought must know how to advance technology, maintain their expertise and be able to react to change to best meet the needs of researchers. The ability to recruit and retain these talents is the key to a sustainable technology infrastructure.
Increase awareness and foster exchange
In addition to attracting the best experts, technology platforms must make themselves more visible to their potential user communities.
How to improve their visibility?
Today, various communication actions such as seminars, conferences or training sessions are conducted to increase awareness and facilitate exchanges between researchers and platform teams. Thanks to digital tools, we are seeing the emergence of networks bringing together experts and researchers. However, there is still a lot of work to be done on the subject. This is why it is essential that research organizations develop the visibility of and access to their platforms by taking advantage of digital transformation.
Technology platforms are indispensable for modern research. To develop their activities, they are facing multiple challenges:
- Deliver quality services under tight timelines;
- Manage a large user flow;
- Optimize administrative workload;
- Finance and maintain cutting-edge technologies;
- Optimize the management of scientific projects;
- Attract and retain the best available talents;
- Increase visibility and promote exchanges.