Creating a sustainable model for research cores challenging, but critical

Core facilities play an essential role in modern research-intensive academic medical centers.  They provide researchers with access to cutting-edge instruments and technologies that normally would be difficult to purchase or maintain in an individual laboratory. Cores expand the research capabilities of investigators and research teams, thereby opening up new avenues of investigation and funding opportunities.

Despite the recognized advantages of robust cores, creating a sustainable model for supporting them is a major challenge. Even defining what constitutes a core can be challenging. Models range from strong centralized facilities with qualified directors to a more dispersed model of shared equipment throughout the organization. Creating a business plan to establish and support cores can be daunting. Fee-for-service offsets some expenses, but cannot alone sustain instrument costs, depreciation, and core personnel salaries. It is therefore important to regularly evaluate existing cores while at the same time anticipating technology developments that will require new ones.

In this column, I’ll review current core facilities at USF Health, and comment on some best practices learned from others. Links to the USF Health and the Center for Drug Discovery and Innovation cores can be found at: https://health.usf.edu/medicine/corefacilities

  • Lisa Muma Weitz Laboratory for Advanced Microscopy (Jake Cha, director).
  • Fred Wright Jr Flow Cytometry Core (Charlie Szekeres, director)
  • Phyllis and Walter Mason Laboratory for Small Animal Imaging and Advanced Cardiovascular Research
  • Research Methodology and Biostatistics Core (Ambuj Kumar, director)
  • Proteomics Cores (Liz Woods/MCOM, Dale Chalput/CDDI)
  • Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Core (CDDI/IDRB housed)
  • Chemidiversity Facility (CDDI/IDRB housed) (Laurent Calcul, director)
  • Biophysics and Structural Biology Core (Eric Lewandowski, director)
  • USF Genomics Core (Interdisciplinary Research Building)

Cores play multiple roles in an academic medical center

In addition to providing access to cutting-edge technologies, research cores give researchers access to expert consultation on experimental design, data interpretation, and figure preparation for manuscripts and grants. Cores generate preliminary data for grants and offer resources to help write and edit the experimental sections of grant proposals.  However, we must not forget their educational contributions. By providing excellent hands-on training for our students, postdoctoral fellows, and research staff, cores add skills to their toolbox (resume) and improve their job prospects.  Core directors also contribute to graduate courses, sharing their expertise and exposing students to techniques that they may not come across in their research. In a world of research kits and mail order experiments, we do our students a service by providing access to state-of-the-art research cores.

Support comes through diverse mechanisms

Cores come into existence when a group of faculty collectively identifies a need. This often happens concurrently with the recruitment of new faculty members who focus attention on the need for specialized instrumentation. In this scenario, instrument purchases can be wrapped into, or added to, a start-up package. Another source of funds to equip a core is the National Institutes of Health, which is committed to enhancing research infrastructure for its funded investigators.  Applications for small or larger instrument grants require the programs of multiple NIH-funded principal investigators to benefit.  While not required, NIH encourages institutions to commit to contributing space and matching funds. Philanthropic donors can also be a major factor in establishing a core. Several USF Health cores are named for the donors who generously provided funding to establish the facilities. We need to work with the USF Foundation to educate them about the importance of cores to support biomedical research.

Virtually all our cores operate as cost centers, charging fees for service. The business side of running a core requires directors who know operating costs and the market rates charged at other academic cores and at for-profit companies providing the same service.  If the cost to provide the service in house exceeds that charged outside, decisions have to be made, including whether to close the core. Examples include routine, repetitive procedures (SOPs) such as stand DNA sequencing and oligonucleotide or peptide synthesis. Generally speaking, if the analysis has been standardized and your sample does require special conditions or treatment, an outside vendor is often the fastest, most economical route.  However, other services cannot, or probably should not, be outsourced.  Examples include imaging (microscopy and whole animal), flow cytometry/cell sorting, and technically demanding procedures such as mass spectrometry and structural biology (NMR and X-Ray crystallography).  Despite these mechanisms of support, research cores will always require institutional support, typically from indirect costs from grants.

Sustainability requires routine performance review

Given the considerable investment required to establish and maintain their infrastructure, each core should be reviewed regularly to ensure it meets its goals. One goal, but certainly not the only, is financial and not all facilities should be evaluated the same. Cores providing established technology can create a fairly predictable cost recovery model, whereas a fee-for-service model will be more difficult to implement in cores with newer technology in which experiments must be tailored to each investigator. Therefore, some cores will recover 50 to 100% of their operating costs, while others will attain 50% or less. But remember, cost recovery is only one goal of a core in an academic center. Value should also be evaluated by the core’s contribution to manuscripts published or grants submitted. Cores and core directors should also be evaluated based upon their impact on advancing the university’s educational mission. It is recommended that each core establish an advisory committee to which the director reports. Some institutions have set up an evaluation matrix that includes eight key metrics rated on a scale of 1 to 10. They include: 1) Administration, 2) Research and Tech Staff, 3), Resource Management, 4), Customer Satisfaction, 5) Publications and Grants, 6) Education and Outreach, 7) Communication of Services, and 8) Self-Assessment.

Source for graphic above and below: Hockberger et al (2018) J. of Biomolecular Techniques 29:79-92

Research cores should be dynamic and always evolving to keep pace with technological advances and the needs of the faculty. That means new cores may need to be developed and some cores may have to be closed. The evaluation metrics above provide a framework to manage our cores. But ultimately, cores serve the faculty and require faculty support. Your feedback to the core directors is vital. I’d also encourage you to work with your colleagues and core directors to write NIH instrument grants. Vibrant cores can help us be more productive and support the growth of the USF’s research and education missions.

Sincerely,

Robert J. Deschenes, PhD
Chair, Department of Molecular Medicine
Sr. Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Education
USF Health Morsani College of Medicine