Core facilities are central hubs of discovery

Core facilities can boost an institution’s capacity for research collaboration, but they present challenges for those who run them.

By Andy Tay

The California Nanosystems Institute core facility of the University of California, Los Angeles (Image credit: Matt Harbicht / Getty Images for UCLA)

This article was originally published by Nature Index

Centralized and shared facilities at research institutions provide access to instruments, technologies, and services, such as expert consultation and sample processing. Core facilities reduce the equipment and labour costs of individual labs, and can facilitate close collaboration between researchers from different fields and institutions.

Managing core facilities, and establishing new ones, can be extremely complex. Considerations such as hiring a strong team of core staff and raising the funds to supply state-of-the-art equipment to users can present a constant challenge. But there can be major advantages for institutions with core facilities, including consolidation of resources that can reduce costs per service or equipment use and equitable access to niche and emerging areas of research.

In 2018, three years after bioengineer Samy Gobaa first floated the idea of setting up a core facility on microfluidics at Institut Pasteur, a non-profit foundation and biomedical research centre in Paris, he was granted the funds to set up the Biomaterials and Microfluidics core facility.

Gobaa says some senior colleagues initially saw a core facility dedicated to microfluidics, which studies the behaviour of fluids through micro-channels, as “nice to have”, rather than an essential service.

He set about demonstrating that microfluidic and bioengineering tools can inform high-impact research, such as understanding infectious diseases. A microfluidic organ-on-a-chip system, for example, can be physiologically closer to functioning human organs than two-dimensional culture systems, he says, and can better recapitulate pathogenic processes in humans.

“We had to convince [potential] users, who are biologists and unfamiliar with engineering tools, that microfluidics could add value to their research,” says Gobaa.

Besides organizing regular meetings with users to understand their projects and experimental needs, Gobaa says they dedicate specific core facility staff to the projects that they are most passionate about and experienced in, so they can help users reduce risk for their project ideas and develop proofs of concept.

“Today, we have 40 projects [with Institut Pasteur researchers] running at the facility,” he says. “It’s important to convince stakeholders, through targeted communication and flagship projects, to show that core facility expertise can benefit their research,” says Gobaa. The core facility team sent emails to researchers investigating intestinal infections, for example, showing how their microfluidic devices could advance their work.

The facility’s funding came from Institut Pasteur, as well as a regenerative biology and medicine consortium, LabEx Revive also based there, and Institut Carnot, another research institute based in Paris.

Hire the right staff

Finding staff with the right skills to support a core facility is crucial, says Adam Stieg, associate director of Technology Centres, and director of the Nano & Pico Characterization Lab within the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI), a core facility of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

CNSI opened its doors in 2007–08 and has since built a collection of resources that provide internal and external users with access to highly sought-after resources such as electron microscopy, nanofabrication, and high throughput screening.

Core facility staff must combine strong technical skills with a passion for teaching and training, along with a bit of business acumen, says Stieg.

“A [core] facility can be filled with the latest equipment, but it’s the people who support their use that matter most,” he says. Stieg joined the core facility straight after completing a PhD in chemistry at UCLA in 2007. His colleagues include researchers who have done postdocs, and some who have industry experience. In the CNSI Technology Centres, 57% of staff have PhDs, 40% have postdoc experience and 40% of staff have previously worked in the industry.

Stieg says that while a recent PhD graduate is paid more as a CNSI staff scientist than as an academic postdoc in UCLA, unlike professorships, positions in core facilities generally do not include academic tenure and other associated benefits, and often cannot offer competitive salaries compared to jobs in industry.

“For instance, a researcher trained to run a high-throughput drug-screening platform would likely receive a better compensation package in industry companies than in academic core facilities,” he says. “That can make it challenging to attract and retain talent to run [academic] core facilities.”

A 2020 survey by the Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities (ABRF) found that industry core-facility personnel are paid roughly 40% more than their counterparts in academic and government core facilities. The same trend was observed for all personnel, regardless of whether they are at the director or non-director levels.

Academic core facility staff must therefore be enticed in other ways, such as by creating a culture where they feel empowered to define their own career trajectory within the facility and beyond it, Stieg says, and in how they engage with researchers and projects.

Stieg’s advice is again supported by the ABRF’s survey, which showed that job satisfaction by core-facilities personnel was mostly attributed to factors relating to work environment, including autonomy of research projects and intellectual challenge – and not salary.

“Most of our technical staff have been trained as scientists and engineers,” says Stieg. “Providing them opportunities to support and collaborate with researchers on campus is empowering. They identify as more than service providers by actively contributing to discovery and innovation.”

Create a critical mass of users

When institutions are considering the establishment of a new core facility, it’s important to be realistic about whether the facility can draw in a critical mass of users to make the investment worthwhile, says Stieg.

“There may be funds available to purchase equipment, but without a broad base of regular users, there will not be sufficient resources to sustain the facility over time,” he says.

Each year, the CNSI Technology Centres support more than 650 unique users from more than 300 unique research teams, on average, including 35 research teams from industry and 20 research teams from academic institutions outside of the University of California. Stieg says this broad, diverse user base helps CNSI to offset a substantial portion of its facility operating costs.

Engaging external users such as from industry is useful because it helps to cover operating costs.

A 2013 paper led by a group of core facility management across the United States reported that core facilities, on average, require their organizations to subsidize 33% of direct costs, which is not economically sustainable in the long run, except for heavily endowed organizations. Such financial pressures explain why many academic core facilities are opening up to external users.

To gauge the interest of potential users, Stieg suggests holding workshops and performing follow-up surveys, to get a good understanding of how likely internal and external research groups are to use a new core facility. Organizing extended demonstration workshops also provides potential users the opportunity to test how the new technology could be applied to their samples.

“We are able to assess the breadth of potential impact, understand the scale of utilization, and perform a cost-benefit analysis that allows us to ensure the long-term viability of a core facility,” said Stieg.

Develop industry networks

Industry users can also expand a core-facility user base, and this provides financial benefits to both the facility and academic users, says Stieg. “Building on these relationships also opens up job opportunities for our students, based on their interaction with industry users and training in industry-relevant technologies.”

Stieg says in recent years there has been increasing discussion among core facilities leaders about managing intellectual property concerns.

For instance, staff at a core facility may start out by providing basic consultations or training to clients and end up contributing to the design of a new process flow that leads to an invention and such intellectual contribution is not part of the paid service.

“It is important that our staff and our users understand the boundaries of where service ends and invention begin,” says Stieg. “When users pay for services, it doesn’t preclude the intellectual contribution of our staff. We strive to support ‘discover, invention and translation’, but have a responsibility to protect the interests of the university, our staff, and users.”

To address this challenge, Stieg recommends that core-facility staff receive training on intellectual property, such as from the relevant university officers, to pick up on early signs of potential transition from service to invention during discussions with users.

“As universities move increasingly towards translational research, I expect this challenge to become more frequent,” he says.

Stay relevant

At the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) electrophysiology core facility, services such as cell culture and electrophysiology – a technique used to measure the electrical activity of cells, used in diagnosing heart arrhythmias and drug development – are offered to researchers from around the world.

The core facility specialises in patch clamp electrophysiology, a highly sensitive technique used to determine how certain medications can affect the electrical activities of cells.

“Patch clamp electrophysiology is a very niche technique,” says Huang Hua, a research assistant professor who runs the facility at NUS. “We are probably the only core facility that provides patch clamp electrophysiology service in Singapore.”

The electrophysiology core facility was established at NUS in 2018 to provide services primarily to researchers within NUS and the Singapore National University Health System. It is closely integrated with the university and shares its resources, says Huang.

“Our staff salary is currently funded by the School of Medicine dean’s office, while some of our equipment is on loan from a senior professor,” says Huang. This is how he is able to keep his user fees minimal, he says. “We may have to increase our fee by four to five times if we were to spin off as an independent contract research company.”

As research fields advance and equipment and techniques change, core facilities must be able to pivot and stay relevant, says Huang, who with his team is currently working with existing clients to develop a more comprehensive service package based on their changing needs.

He says they are also diversifying their clientele beyond researchers, such as to clinicians, to understand the clinical impact of rare diseases that affect cells’ electrical activity.

“Our core facility is starting to provide services to reflect research trends, including recording electrical signals from human brain organoids – 3D miniaturized brain tissues made from stem cells – that are becoming more popular as disease models,” he says.