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Shared Instrumentation Facilities

In a recent article, published in the MRS Bulletin, authors examine the benefits of shared facilities to researchers and universities. Below is an excerpt. 

Shared Instrumentation Facilities: Benefiting researchers and universities, and sustaining research excellence 

Authors: T. Amanda Strom, Greg Haugstad, Jonathan Shu, and Ram Seshadri 

The case for shared experimental facilities

Consider a hypothetical scenario: A new faculty member is happy to start her independent university faculty career with a substantial startup package, which allows her to purchase a state-of-the art diffractometer. Research is progressing well, and the group is productive. However, come year four, problems commence. The original service contract for the diffractometer has expired, and renewing it is prohibitively expensive for the laboratory. The x-ray tube is reaching the end of its life, and despite the fact that several other groups are also using the diffractometer, no agreement is in place to contribute maintenance funds. The diffraction expert in the laboratory has left for the next stage of his career, and instrumentation upkeep and training of new users are suffering. What is the faculty member to do?

Here is an alternative scenario: A university faculty candidate, during a second round of visits in the hiring process, is somewhat surprised to learn that she will not have her own diffractometer, but instead, the university will purchase a new one that will be housed in a shared facility. The shared facility model is distinct from a traditional single principal investigator (PI) model in that it is a well-defined space with the necessary infrastructure, populated by research instrumentation serving many investigators, potentially including researchers from outside the university. In the shared facility model, equipment is overseen by highly trained full-time staff members dedicating themselves to training and aiding users and maintaining and communicating the full capabilities of the laboratory. Additionally, the expectation is that everyone, including the prospective PI, will pay a usage fee for instrument time that will go toward upkeep, and just one PI or group will not have priority on use.

In effect, this article is about why the faculty candidate in the second scenario should be convinced that the suggested path –– notably of relying on shared facilities –– can be more beneficial in the long term: to the PI, to the university, and to the research community at large. Several documents and articles have appeared over the years that are relevant to this discourse, including two US National Academy reports and some recent articles.

The opinions, examples, and best practices provided in this article were gleaned from participants who met in March 2018 under the umbrella of a US National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored Shared Facilities Operations Workshop. The workshop participants included faculty and facilities managers from Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs), Materials Innovation Platform (MIP), and National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI) facilities from across the United States. While data management was discussed at length during these meetings and is a central concern for shared facilities, it is not discussed in this article to keep the scope manageable.

Read more in Volume 45, Issue 5 (Emergent Quantum Materials) of the MRS Bulletin