Achieving efficiencies and sharing assets and equipment across UK universities

The S-lab conference last week was a most inspiring and interesting event. It had everything, from a keynote speaker representing NASA to an awards dinner with Matthew Cobb revealing life’s greatest secret, and exhibitors showing the newest lab designs and coolest lab equipment. It was attended by close to 400 participants both from higher education and the private sector.

A focus of the event was the equipment sharing agenda set by the Wakeham and Diamond reviews. Peter James managed to bring in one room and across a few sessions some of the key stakeholders.

We heard from Steve Butcher of HEFCE about the development in the thinking and assessing of lab equipment efficiency and effectiveness. Susan Wright from SUPC talked about the savings that HE can make when purchasing new equipment via the framework agreements set up with commercial suppliers. Chris Wilkinson of Cambridge University took us through his journey in aggregating and sharing equipment data on three levels: local – via the institutional database he has been developing and promoting with colleagues since 2012, regional – via a database that aggregates the data for the Science and Engineering South consortium (SES), and national – via the portal.

While a number of sessions dealt with sharing as a gain in efficiency and usability of equipment and assets, all 90 sessions at the conference addressed a range of solutions for making facilities, equipment and generally assets more effective in saving money for the sector. Andy Evans of VWR, for example, talked about the key sustainability criteria for lab equipment (longevity, consolidation, best practice and individual checklists) and how these can save an institution thousands of pounds a year in energy consumption and environmental waste. An example I will return to later is how changing freezer temperature from -80 °C to -70 °C saves 28% in electricity and carbon costs without diminishing sample viability.

Our session at the conference was a discussion on challenges and opportunities in equipment sharing and effectiveness. We shared our vision to get some feedback and initial thoughts from the audience, and we have also talked about the work we are undertaking around and Kit-Catalogue.

Not only were the sessions on Wakeham and Diamond responses informative, but the attendees had the chance to voice their concerns around initiatives across local or regional consortia, share examples of projects that worked within their institutions and ask questions that still need to be answered at the national level. I summarise below the key points raised and some of the solutions suggested across all sessions and the equipment sharing working lunch.

Potential solutions for asset and equipment sharing and effectiveness:

  • National forum and/or implementation group that would bring all work across the sector together and would oversee progress in this area; there was a consensus around the neutrality of this group;
  • Possibly broaden the scope beyond sharing as the only solution to save money for the sector; include efficiencies at the equipment usage level, e.g. energy and environmental effectiveness (similar to Andy’s freezer example); this step will allow the involvement of vendors and the facilities managers – a network that already exists and meets up at the s-lab conference and can be leveraged; see Peter James’s white paper on efficiency gains from low and medium value equipment;
  • Help institutions surface the cost efficiencies already gained from using framework agreements (see when purchasing equipment;
  • Improve the annual Value for Money report to include better metrics around equipment effectiveness; this is an agenda that will be taken forward by BIS and HEFCE;
  • Work towards a common set of contractual agreements that will facilitate sharing between institutions – building on work done by N8 on a framework of templates, guidelines and criteria, the Brunswick template agreements developed by ARMA, and Jisc’s HPC agreement;
  • Explore the potential for VAT cost sharing groups to reduce the friction of sharing – over 250 institutions participate in Jisc’s cost sharing group, which we believe is the largest in the UK.
  • When sharing equipment, a great deal of cultural and mind-set change is required; at institutional level, Warwick University was able to bypass cross faculty buy-in by investing money in a centrally-run department which deals with purchasing, maintenance and booking of specific pieces of equipment; at the national level, BBSRC has invested in national capabilities and clearly briefed the staff working within these facilities that they just happened to be hosted at Pirbright, but are for anyone in HE to use;
  • Given there are already individual institutions or sometimes departments ahead of the game with their solutions for organising, using and sharing equipment, we need to collect these case studies, understand what they have done, analyse the scalability of their solution and focus on those few packages that would give most impact. For example, implementing the set up that BBSRC and MRC have with any new facility across all funders; or handing the ownership and responsibility on any new piece of equipment to the university rather than individual PI.

Questions that need further research and discussion:

  • What indicators can be used for sharing? What does asset and equipment sharing mean?
  • How can we measure and improve utilisation rates reasonable? Or how do we track usage without burdening the PI or researchers?
  • What metrics and analytics are already available and how can we use them to already surface the efficiency achieved?
  • Liabilities – who is responsible for fixing or paying for the fix when a piece of equipment breaks while being used by an external party?
  • How can we leverage further catalogues/databases of equipment at the institutional and national level?
  • Some pieces of equipment cannot be used without prior training; technicians and PIs will rarely dedicate their time to train external parties; how do we ensure this is less of a hoop in sharing?
  • We understand that around 40% of institutions still use paper booking and logs, which makes it harder for tracking usage and sharing; there is still a lot of equipment that uses old software and doesn’t interoperate with the booking systems that are in place; given these, do we need to build or broker access to a national booking system or a national standard for booking and tracking usage/sharing?
  • What are the major cultural issues and how can these be overcome?

Visit our R&D project page to find out more about Jisc support for asset sharing, and find out more about Efficiency Exchange support for asset sharing.