Optimizing institutional approaches to enable research.

Author:Grieb, Teri
 
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Introduction

Within the past two decades, the complexity of biomedical science has provided the impetus to design increasingly sophisticated and innovative instrumentation and services, thus enabling faculty to dramatically advance research along the entire spectrum of basic and clinical investigations. While the infrastructure for and enablers of research continue to provide the basis for these cutting-edge investigations, they come with a price to individual investigators regarding both instrumentation expense and technical expertise. As acknowledged by Angeletti, Bonewald, Jongh, Niece, Rush, and Stults (1999) over fifteen years ago, the model of an individual investigator possessing a self-sufficient single laboratory, including all the necessary modern equipment to conduct competitive science, is a distant memory. The historic high-end, self-sufficient laboratories have been mostly replaced by laboratories that rely on institutionally supported infrastructure (i.e. core facilities). These core facilities enable scientific discovery by providing the latest technology, instrumentation, and technical expertise. However, those institutions that invest in enabling infrastructure are often faced with additional conundrums. These include the cost associated with maintaining/replacing existing services (Haley, 2011), developing new technologies (Slaughter, 2009), identifying highly trained faculty/staff to serve as core directors (Rey, 2007), and integrating a system to effectively monitor services that need to either grow, be maintained, or be dismantled (Haley, 2009). This manuscript addresses the enterprise-level challenge of keeping pace with and effectively managing cutting-edge, next generation infrastructure that supports the needs of scientists, allowing them to remain competitive in securing extramural funding and publishing novel discoveries. An institutional approach for enhancing the effectiveness of core infrastructure operations by implementing process improvements, managing the lifecycle of core facilities, and monitoring key core facilities' metrics is described.

In 2010, the Office of Research at the University of Michigan Medical School conducted a thorough business review of its centrally managed biomedical research core facilities. As a result, the Office of Research has implemented an institutional approach to effectively manage the supporting infrastructure of our central core facilities. This includes: 1) a process for core facility capital equipment planning and acquisition, 2) a method for reviewing and managing the lifecycle of existing core facilities (invest, maintain, or sun-down), 3) a process to evaluate whether department-based core facilities should transition into the central, school-wide core facilities, 4) an investment in the administration and operational efficiencies of the core facilities, and 5) support for the development and implementation of new methodologies to make the latest techniques available to our investigators. The optimization of this approach to infrastructure management has allowed the Medical School to replace obsolete equipment, introduce new technologies and platforms, increase scientific capability and capacity, reduce turnaround times, create standardized and sustainable oversight, create core evaluation processes and metrics, and pilot an outsourcing model (to eliminate capital investments when appropriate). While this business strategy was developed as a platform to specifically manage the functional units of the core facilities, it also is structured to provide a broad governing system that guides key "lifecycle" decisions of the core facilities.

A Business Review

The University of Michigan is home to 92 core facilities or shared resources that facilitate the pace of both broad and specialty research for our scientists. Due to a decentralized environment, most of these core facilities or shared resources are created and maintained at a department or programmatic center level, often characterized by serving a limited, targeted population of investigators. Eleven institution-wide core facilities are housed under the Office of Research in the Medical School and are collectively administered as the Biomedical Research Core Facilities (BRCF) with an operating budget funded by the Dean of the Medical School. The BRCF is managed by a single administrative director and provides central support for "in demand" technologies. The BRCF services are available to all university faculty based on a cost recovery model (i.e., university approved recharge rates). The core facilities comprising the BRCF include: DNA sequencing, flow cytometry, bioinformatics analysis, biosafety containment, proteomics and peptide synthesis, metabolomics, transgenic animal models, viral vector creation, microscopy and imaging analysis, the biomedical research store, and a sample preservation freezer facility.

The Office of Research launched a business review of the BRCF in order to identify ways to improve the ability of the core facilities to meet our researchers' needs. This review also resulted in the identification of areas of strengths, including reliable, high-quality services, national recognition associated with specific core facilities, and competitive recharge rates within the university and across the nation compared to peer institutions. The BRCF is a significant operation with annual expenditures in excess of $17 million, with most of the cost of operations recouped through recharges to investigators.

An important aspect of the business review was the identification of the challenges that threaten the timely acquisition of new, state-of-the-art technologies for the core facilities. For example, the review identified that both the general fund allocation and the level of administrative support for the BRCF had been stationary for decades. The static funding for the core facilities curtailed progress in the development of new methodologies and prevented the acquisition of new equipment. These issues were further compounded by a core facility financial system that was not keeping pace with the growth and increasing complexity of the BRCF, with its myriad recharge accounts and billing across a broad customer base of internal and external clients. The system did not readily generate automated reports with the type of information needed to track the granular performance of the BRCF business portfolio. Finally, the absence of key performance indicators for each core facility as well as the lack of a standard process for evaluating where cores are in their business lifecycle hindered the strategic and operational management of these costly assets.

Overall, the lack of predictable and strategic funding allocations that kept pace with inflation and researchers' demands for services along with a deficient prioritization process for procuring new equipment and technology were arguably the most serious threats to the viability of the BRCF's activities and the scientific competitiveness of our faculty. The review found that without a financial and operational strategy supported by executive leadership 1) investments became static and insufficient; 2) equipment was increasingly becoming obsolete or the number of instruments available was no longer meeting the demand of faculty, resulting in long wait times for investigators; 3) the budget neither accounted for state-of-the-art methods development required by many core facilities nor provided financial aid to investigators recovering from large-scale instrument failures, leaving faculty with the entire liability; 4) governance and decision making regarding the fate of a core facility when business either waned or boomed was opaque; and 5) the absence of standard, key performance indicators that are routinely monitored clouded the oversight and management of the core facilities.

Business Strategy

Armed with the information generated during the business review, the Office of Research developed a multipronged business strategy that has served to facilitate informed decision-making around investing, sustaining, monitoring, and managing the lifecycle of these key core facility assets. The Office of...

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