Today, I’d like to blog about some interesting discussions and dispel some myths related to NIH-supported core facilities. Core facilities are important research resources, providing access to advanced instrumentation and technologies operated by experts. Cores provide opportunities to be hubs of innovation at an institution, connecting scientists with the tools and expertise that can take their research projects to the next level.
In March, NIH co-hosted a workshop with the Association of Biomolecular Research Facilities to discuss core facility management and strategies for increasing core facility efficiency. The meeting resulted in a set of recommendations for NIH and institutions to consider, and a report from the workshop is now available, if you’d like to read more. In addition, the presenters’ slides are posted on the workshop website, and each session was recorded and can be viewed online.
Much of the workshop discussion involved core resource sharing and NIH’s policies on sharing of cores. NIH actively encourages the shared use of core facilities and has policies which allow sharing. Expanding access to core facilities is important for many reasons. The most obvious reason is that the fact that core sharing promotes efficiencies and cost savings. In addition, sharing of cores is an important way to support the ever-increasingly multidisciplinary nature of science; cores provide valuable resources that cross scientific disciplines and departments; and broad access to such facilities is essential for successful research.
One of the largest issues, however, is to understand what cores exist. Both at your institutions and across NIH’s funded portfolio, we know that we may be supporting similar services because of the lack of adequate systems to track the myriad of services available. Our goal is to identify efficiencies and in order to do so we must understand what is out there. NIH did an experiment that proved highly successful, using American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) funds to support a core consolidation program. A recent analysis of this program shows that consolidating multiple similar cores into a single facility yields many efficiencies. Through the integration of information systems and the centralization of billing, purchasing, scheduling, and tracking services, core consolidations produced cost savings for both the core and its users. It also resulted in faster service for users and improved data analysis and staff availability — all of which is important to increasing research productivity.
We will be moving forward in partnership with you, the research community, to explore how to best facilitate evaluations of cores and how to best fund cores to enhance efficiencies. To start, we are encouraging grantee institutions to evaluate their core facility portfolios to index your services. Together we can find ways to identify and make known core facilities across programs, departments, colleges and institutions so that when applying for grants to support new core facilities, you will have access to information about what core facilities and services are already available.
We encourage grantee institutions to find opportunities to enhance core efficiency and strengthen their research infrastructure further by developing inventories of core activities within and across organizational units (e.g., research centers, departments) or within a geographic region. Other efficiency opportunities may be facilitated through: institutional governance of research core facilities; coordinated strategic planning efforts; and centralized core management practices. For example, institutions might consider the integration of data systems or the consolidation of financial services.
We’re looking forward to your continued input as we explore additional ways to enhance our support of core facilities. As a start, my office published FAQs that demystify and clarify NIH’s policies about cores, which I hope you will find useful in managing your facilities. Now that core facility activity codes have transitioned to progress reporting using the RPPR, we anticipate that the collection of data through structured data fields will give us new metrics on the use and impact of NIH-supported core facilities, and this too will help guide and produce sound data regarding our core facility programs. Increasing the efficiency of cores is important to all of us and will only further strengthen our vital biomedical infrastructure and accelerate the pace of scientific discovery.