Planning for the future

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2014 is upon us and as we individually make New Year’s resolutions, plan attendance at events and consider changes we might bring in, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss the need for microscopy units and universities to plan as well. I speak from an academic point of view as I’m based in a university setting; however, what I have to say should apply to others in commercial setups too.

We all know that despite generous discounts new equipment is not cheap and as with all scientific equipment at times it seems that as if someone decided to add a zero to the price because it is scientific. As users we are ‘custodians’ of this equipment and don’t actually buy or own the equipment with our own personal finances and must rely on other external funding from a benefactor, research council, institution or company in which we work. Because of the cost and this funding model it is often tricky to plan for the systematic replacement of equipment, which can leave microscopy units and their operators nursing aging instruments into their teenage years or even twenties before they finally become unrepairable and unsupported by manufacturers. 

To my knowledge, and correct me if I’m wrong, there is not currently a hire-purchase option when buying a new microscope as there is for a new car (although I hear sometime there can be trade-ins). This HP-type option would be a good one, especially in times of economic downturn, and allow companies and institutions to focus their minds (and budgets) for 3-5 years to pay for cutting edge (or workhorse) equipment, rather than a larger up-front one-off cost, which must suddenly be found from the annual budget. 

I don’t have figures on what the percentage of new equipment purchases amounts to for a top 20 UK university, but I’m sure that compared to the research income alone, it is trivial. On the assumption that existing facilities already support the funding won and need to continue to do so, it seems nonsensical to not support equipment and facilities by having a replacement plan. By monitoring the condition of the existing equipment and identifying replacement equipment, the institution can further enhance its reputation or aid the researchers in the establishment of new areas of expertise. 

Three dimensional reconstruction of the mammalian parasite Trypanosoma brucei made by Dr Louise Hughes, recently used to highlight funding for new equipment (bms.brookes.ac.uk/news/scanning-electron-microscope)

On the topic of expertise comes a question that is currently on the minds of those in the microscopy community. I’m aware that BioImaging UK have been consulting scientists up and down the UK on matters of funding, training and new technologies. I’m asking what are the key areas of expertise in the UK, what equipment does the UK currently have, and what are the future trends? What should the response be to this and how do we plan for the future? There are plans afoot for the establishment of national centres of excellence and local ‘hubs’ that I’m guessing it is hoped should feed into the national centres where the most demanding (in terms of facilities and expert users/operators) will deliver the highest impact results and publications.

A diagram from the BioImaging UK Wiki page, summarising the aims of the group.

Beyond funding equipment, there is another important point worth raising, which is often overlooked: that of supporting equipment with dedicated staff and training competent new users. I am certain that 90% of you will be familiar with the discussion about how equipment gets funded, but not staff to support the kit. The worst case I’ve heard of is when funding for equipment was awarded to an institution, which installed the equipment and it then sat barely used as inexperienced users attempted to get results. Thankfully this isn’t usually the case in the UK, but we do often have the restriction that equipment is only funded without money to pay a dedicated operator. One could take the view that if a funding body such as EPSRC or BBSRC has funded the equipment, then the institution receiving (and benefiting from it) should fund a member of staff to support the instrument(s). Others might say that if a grant committee has seen the benefit potential of funding kit, then they should see that funding staff is also crucial to the success of the work. 

This is a debate that will continue long after this blog is no more, but I hope that I’ve given you all something to think about for the New Year. I wish every one of you a happy, successful and fruitful new year!

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