What are the real efficiencies from sharing equipment?

If sharing is largely collaborating then are we collaborating as much as we can? Or are we focussed on the need to collaborate more when actually such activity is fully optimised?

Therefore is the question we should really be asking ourselves “how can we become more efficient?”   We have always needed partnering for knowledge or resource reasons, and we will continue to have these needs, possibly procured in more efficient processes.  However, the business processes and support for our research equipment is where there is a real potential for more efficient and effective practice.

An emerging area where efficiency can be realised is in the sharing of results.  This could be through an established consortia (e.g. per sample, free to consortia members or costed to non-consortia members) and such practice could realise the potential for 100% utilised equipment to still deliver for the wider community. The JISC pilot project, the Research Data Registry and Discovery Service, delivered through the DCC (Digital Curation Centre), could be a prime enabler for more efficient and timely access to such research data. By creating a standard metadata profile and establishing a mechanism for discovery of this metadata, a simple system could be implemented allowing searching and filtering of data in a timely way without the need for the researchers to do anything more than add the data to their repository. 

Obviously this all sounds simplistic and utopian but the sector is moving in the right direction.  The equipment.data project can offer some real opportunities from infrastructure exploitation for improved data discovery to linking with publication datasets demonstrating impact. These might include:

  • Future enhancement of the UNIQUIP data publishing specification, through a CASRAI Working Group, extending the fields to be captured, including options such as; link to booking system, link to data repository or subject to disposals - an asset system capture field which could highlight potential for redeployment)
  • Infrastructure exploitation for data discovery  enabling timely discovery of data outputs (e.g. samples, images etc) As mentioned above the development of a structured metadata profile for research data could improve efficiencies in equipment, even that which is 100% utilised. Improved access to results through the creation of aggregation services would allow those wishing to use research facilities access to the data they require when the equipment is otherwise in use. 
  • Development of applications allowing UNIQUIP publishing specification compliant equipment lists to be ingested into institutional repositories will enable referencing of equipment used in the generation of publications and/or data outputs, improving recording of impact and equipment utilisation.  These references will also enable data linkages in services such as Gateway to Research, improving the ability to link from the output back to the academic, equipment or facility and grant.

Equally, it doesn't necessarily have to be about the equipment utilisation.  At the recent ARMA 2014 Conference, Dr Hamish McAlpine from the University Bath and Dr Steve Trowell from the University of Exeter talked about the simple steps we can take to become more efficient in how we support equipment through its life. These steps are also very amenable to measurement, offering the opportunity to benchmark and improve over time.  These opportunities include:

  • Simple interventions in estates management. For example, better knowledge of what equipment exists (and is being purchased) can lead to more efficient provision of utilities in buildings.
  • Procurement efficiencies through contractual alignment both planning and renewal of contracts can present opportunities to explore economies of scale. In particular, the use of third party service providers and/or contracting such services across a consortia like the GW4 could deliver substantial reductions in costs, as well as other benefits such as identification of under-utilised equipment.

For further information on Hamish’s presentation please see his slides

These are all very practical and require little additional effort for very real efficiencies beyond the challenges faced when considering the effort to increase utilisation of a piece of service research equipment from say 50% to 75%, where the practical returns may be outweighed by the need for full time support from what may have been previously part time.

In an agenda where we need to develop efficiencies there are some simple procedural steps we can take enabling the delivery of measurable efficiencies before we consider more resource intensive developments. Clearly these may not address the procurement of the next 1GHz spectrometer but could deliver larger cumulative savings than you think.    

Adrian Cox
Project Manager