Keywords: shared research resource, communication, expectation, impact, investment, sustainability, value
Shared research resources occupy a unique role in the scientific research landscape. Sometimes called core facilities, shared research resources provide instrumentation, services, and expertise to a wide range of researchers. With dedicated staff maintaining instruments, training users, and supporting collaborations, these resources are well situated to churn out reproducible high-quality data, lead research innovation, create efficiencies, and stimulate economic development all while driving down capital costs for institutions. That being said, in the high-paced disciplines of science with limited resources and competing priorities, these resources are often obligated to demonstrate their worth, especially beyond traditional service delivery models. How can shared research resources quantify and communicate their value and impact to stakeholders for optimal support and sustainability? For best approaches towards value proposition, it is important to understand the various stakeholders in the shared research resource ecosystem, including their needs, expectations, and value systems. This will in turn inform models of support and best approaches for planning, positioning, managing, evaluating, and improving shared research resource output to return the most value to all stakeholders involved. It is imperative that communication is tailored for each unique group of stakeholders, and terminology and expectations are managed accordingly. This work attempts to curate and share approaches and best practices toward this effort, gathered through available literature and focused engagement with various shared research resource stakeholders.
ADDRESS CORRESPONDENCE TO: Sara K. Bowen, 350 West Thomas Road, Phoenix, AZ 85013, USA (E-mail: [email protected]; Phone: 602-406-3358).
Conflict of Interest Statement: The authors declare no conflicts of interest.
Keywords: shared research resource, communication, expectation, impact, investment, sustainability, value
Shared research resources (SRRs), historically considered by various institutional research communities as operational centers for data collection and sample analysis, are emerging as vital research infrastructure. SRRs have become a must-have strategic resource for research intensive institutions that represent the Tier-1 institutions. Investments within these SRRs are now a major differentiator between departments, colleges, and universities. On an operational level, SRRs serve a diverse scientific community by offering a large range of services from atomic absorption spectroscopy in environmental chemistry to z-stacking electron microscopy.
Like snowflakes, no 2 SRRs are alike, not even within the same organizations and disciplines. This is further compounded by the organic nature in which most of the SRRs were established. The majority of SRRs have origins from individual principal investigators who expanded access to capital equipment that was originally acquired from grants meant for their own research group. With time, many institutions have moved towards centralizing SRRs to avoid a duplication of services and equipment as much as possible. In cases where there are 2 similar facilities, it is mostly because of the need to create redundancies of key research resources or to address specific and unique demands of some stakeholders. With this level of heterogeneity, it might be daunting to attempt to ascribe common methodology for measuring SRR success. However, it is important to note that the majority of SRRs share key common elements. They are generally designed and positioned to be widely accessible, operate at the intersection of science and business, and run an operating budget that generally exceeds their cost recovery ability when all costs are fully taken into account. Most importantly, SRR stakeholders remain largely similar across institutions and disciplines.
By definition, SRRs are not stand-alone entities; rather, they are “shared.” At the very least, they rely symbiotically on their customer base. As can be appreciated, there is a broad swath of individuals, departments, and functional offices that interact with SRRs. The ecosystem revolving around an SRR contains a myriad of stakeholders, each with different expectations and methods to define successful operations, interactions, and outcomes. These relationships and interactions are essential for the success of SRRs. Recognizing, analyzing, engaging, and communicating with SRR stakeholders is critical for the long-term success and sustainability of these research resources that have become invaluable to the research landscape. Focusing on the interrelationships between the SRR and its stakeholders provides the opportunity and means to understand needs, develop and execute strategies and best practices to address these needs, add value, and maximize outcomes and impact.
SRRs are part of a research ecosystem whose components need to work together through the exchange of information. The diagram schematic in Figure 1 illustrates the interrelationship of key stakeholders in the SRR ecosystem: in the core-centric model, 4 rings represent broad categories of stakeholders.
As can be noted, each SRR is part of a research ecosystem. On a daily basis, SRR staff might interact with users and other SRRs, and on occasion, SRR leadership will likely interface with administration (academic or industrial), external customers, and corporate partners. And while the players may change among cores and institutions, as a general rule, these core ecosystems are relatively consistent. This allows for a common strategy for demonstrating, measuring, and communicating SRR value. Figure 1 shows an exhaustive but not complete stakeholder ecosystem. It is important to note that the number and nature of these stakeholders might vary from one institution to another.
The innermost ring (RED) encompasses stakeholders who interact with the SRR on a daily basis. This is the operational layer. Stakeholders in this layer are intimately involved in the day-to-day functions of the SRR and are therefore most closely associated with the core facility and have the most direct contact with it.
The middle ring (GREEN): As the rings move further away from the core, the relationships become increasingly more abstract, and direct interactions tend to be much less frequent. This is the integrative/influencer layer. Key stakeholders in this layer provide a scaffold for the research infrastructure. They enable administrative functions that sustain vibrant research. It is therefore imperative that SRRs pay attention and cultivate a strong bidirectional relationship with each of these stakeholders.
The next middle ring (BLUE) presents the most challenges for SRR because of the infrequent nature of interrelationships. This is the strategic layer that shapes and informs the overall direction of the SRR. It is important to pay attention to the goals and objectives of the institution’s strategic plans and, in particular, the metrics that went into developing those plans. SRRs should identify those key metrics that align with the institution’s strategic plans.
The outermost ring (ORANGE) represents regional and national initiatives, alliances, and professional organizations that provide resources to support and advocate for SRR programs. This is the broader community that advocates, impacts, and benefits from SRRs. SRRs should leverage these resources for best practices in their planning, operations, and sustainability efforts for broader impact.
It is important that the SRRs and their various stakeholders understand and leverage these relationships within the research ecosystem for maximum value and impact. Furthermore, it is important to communicate effectively with each stakeholder to build strong relationships. A crucial element to successful communication between SRRs and their stakeholders is understanding the unique needs of each. Table 1 is an illustration of a bidirectional relationship between SRR and 3 of the stakeholders: users and collaborators of the shared resource, the Office of Grants and Contracts, and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.
While there will be several variations in approaches among different institutions, the spirit of the illustration is to create a basic outline to facilitate cogent conversations in both directions. For example, the University of Colorado, Boulder has compiled a fairly comprehensive list that describes the metrics that motivate each shareholder in relation to most core facilities at their institution.
Gaining insights into the unique needs of each stakeholder will provide the opportunity to meet expectations and improve communication defining SRR value and impact. This will in turn position the SRR for long-term successes and sustainability.
Core Funding Programs
Core Evaluation Strategies: Using Non-Financial Metrics to Enhance Core Facilities
Performance Management in Core Facilities
Leveraging the Value of CoreMarketPlace and RRIDs
Dialogue between Core Scientists and Core Administrators
To understand and address the topic of communicating SRR value and impact, we relied on materials, resources, and insights gleaned over the past 2 years from members of the Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities (ABRF) and their home institutions, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) task force on Maximizing the Value of Shared Research Resources, plus publicly available literature on the topic. Information and discussions centered around best methods and approaches for conceptualizing, planning, strategizing, collecting, utilizing, improving, and communicating the value and impact of SRR successes.
The FASEB Shared Research Resource task force was created in 2020 to develop a framework and implement a plan for FASEB’s initiatives pertaining to shared instrumentation, core facilities, and other resources that serve a broader research community. The task force comprised core directors, FASEB administrators, and representatives from the federal funding agencies. As part of its deliverables, the task force produced a report in March 2021 that identified barriers, opportunities, and best approaches and made recommendations for policy changes pertaining to SRR accessibility, investments, stewardship, and sustainability, among other things. The task force also published a policy brief with recommendations for individual investigators, institutions, regional coalitions, and federal agencies on strategies and best approaches for positioning, investing, and sustaining SRRs.
The FASEB task force also hosted virtual roundtables in June 2021 to discuss the 2 publications. The total attendance was over 90 participants representing SRR programs, federal entities, private entities, funding agencies, university associations, nonprofit foundations, ABRF, and FASEB. See details under Supplemental Materials. The first hour represented a general overview of the work of the task force and a presentation of the key findings. Participants were then assigned to breakout rooms where they discussed questions posed on focused areas. Some of the questions presented to participants were the following:
How have you incorporated SRRs into strategic plans and the strategic planning process? If SRRs are not incorporated, what are or might be the challenges to doing so?
How does your institution recognize and communicate the value of SRRs?
Does your institution have a central SRR administrative office(r) and/or a SRR advisory committee? Have you found this to be successful?
What are the metrics that matter for SRRs at your institution, and how are they determined?
How are institutions collecting data, analyzing metric trends, and using the data collected?
Each breakout session had a discussion lead and a note taker. Notes from each discussion group were compiled and shared with FASEB and served as a reference for this manuscript.
In early 2020, ABRF started a town halls series to discuss various topics of interest to its membership. Conducted predominantly over the Zoom virtual platform, these town halls were member led and attracted core leaders and staff from various institutions across the United States, Canada, and ABRF’s membership in international locations. The town halls generally followed a predetermined topic with an expert present or moderator and, in some cases, a notes taker. There were a total of 19 town halls between September 2020 and May 2022. The most relevant to this manuscript are shown in Table 2.
Relationship to SRR
Deliverables From/To SRR
SRR User/PI, Collaborator
Uses SRR facilities
Office of Grants & Contracts
Assists SRR with grant & contracts management
Office of Research/VCR
The 2022 ABRF national meeting was held in Palm Springs, California, in the last week of March 2022. During this event, a second session of roundtable discussions was conducted to further discuss the FASEB SRR task force recommendations. Participants formed groups of 5-10 per table to discuss various topics from the task force report. A total of 30 minutes was allocated per topic, with participants being given the opportunity to join different tables/topics after 15-minute discussions on a topic. Most relevant to this manuscript was the breakout groups tasked with discussing communication between stakeholders, setting expectations, and developing metrics for success. For this topic, there were a total of 19 participants, with 11 being in round 1 and 8 participants in round 2.
What are the metrics that matter at your institution, and how are they determined?
How are institutions collecting data, analyzing metrics trends, and using the collected data?
What activities do SRRs perform that cannot be measured as recharge?
ABRF members shared information, resources, tools, and approaches that they have used at their own institution to address this topic. Some of these resources have been indexed on the ABRF website.
We reviewed and curated publicly available literature and resources on this topic to inform results and discussions. The Journal of Biomolecular Techniques has published many articles relevant to shared resource planning and operations and was our key source of information.
A common theme throughout all the findings and discussions is the assertion that SRRs are a key investment in scientific infrastructure. If planned and managed optimally, SRRs present a much greater value and impact than historically quantified., Figure 2 is a consensus summary of areas where the impact of SRRs is quite evident.
For most grants, Principal Investigators (PIs) have demonstrated meaningful institutional support needed to successfully carry out the research. A centerpiece of this support is generally provided by SRRs and their staff expertise. Every time a grant application includes a letter of support from core staff, that SRR is making a positive impact. Even the most promising grant proposals need evidence that the author has the resources and expertise available to use the funds appropriately to accomplish the study aims.
Staff recruitment and retention is topical in light of the recent “great resignation.” Traditionally, building up a workforce has been overlooked as a positive metric, but as the professional world shifts, it is becoming increasingly apparent that career satisfaction is critical in the scientific community. Establishing a climate of trust and respect is crucial to staff engagement and overall career satisfaction. Faculty are attracted by turn-key (well-established) SRRs, enabling them to begin their work immediately rather than having to purchase equipment and hire staff to run it, which would take significant time and investment.
Having access to the most current and cutting-edge research resources can make or break a research program. Regularly, research groups are able to perform and publish interdisciplinary research by accessing SRRs from across a range of departments. On the extreme end, the National Science Foundation encourages equipment development through the Major Research Instrumentation programs, and the major requirement is that the equipment be housed in a shared facility. It takes years for equipment developed through these programs to be made commercially available. In the meantime, researchers with access to these bleeding-edge technologies are able to publish groundbreaking research and shape new thinking in a research field. This is largely enabled by SRRs. Recently, through the implementation of Research Resource Identifiers (RRIDs), it has become easier to acknowledge and cite SRRs. With RRIDs, authors can now acknowledge SRRs the same way they acknowledge funders of their research—by simply inserting the alpha-numerical digital persistent identifier of the SRR. Because users of SRRs often access heavily reduced service fees, the acknowledgment of SRR in publications is the currency they can pay forward in order to sustain the SRRs. Publications are a key metric that funding agencies need to fund new equipment acquisitions. Publications should acknowledge the staff in the SRR that provided the materials/methods section and data analysis. This not only adds value to the institution but it also lessens the gap by increasing equity for all.
SRRs share and cultivate their expertise by offering training to undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs; this is another non-monetary (value-added) benefit that SRRs bring to the metaphorical table. This metric is also often overlooked as a positive benefit generated solely through the concerted efforts by the SRR staff.
SRRs foster innovation. By housing and maintaining big-ticket items in SRRs and creating a space for sharing ideas and resources, SRRs de-risk the innovative process. They distribute costs among the larger group members. Moreover, SRR resources that span disciplines create interfaces/pipelines that translate ideas into products, solutions, and cures. Even the best ideas can flounder if the burden of entry is too great to develop them. SRRs demonstrate their critical role in opening the innovative process up to scale.
Collaborations are central to the generation of novel and innovative ideas. Expertise and experiences are shared by the SRR staff with the PI’s to develop projects. SRR staff work in a cooperative and collaborative manner that leverages the strengths of others to accomplish strategic goals. SRRs have become a major hub for team science and collaboration across all disciplines. With major expertise under one roof, SRRs are positioned to leverage this infrastructure to spur innovation. There are cost-saving benefits and major efficiencies gained. SRR users do not have to invest in this expertise in their labs but rather can leverage what is already available in SRRS.
SRRs are well positioned to adapt, respond, and support research continuity and sustainability amidst emergencies and natural disasters in support of institutional research. Many institutions saw this play out somewhat organically and strategically as they made efforts to sustain critical research operations during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as most activity was ramping down.,
SRRs are at the nexus of sustainability, equity, and inclusion. It is becoming clear that SRRs, by definition, play a central role in the sustainability, equity, and inclusion goals of the institution. SSRs fulfill these goals because they are research spaces that 1) house equipment that is better shared than individually owned, 2) provide equitable access to everyone on campus from undergraduates to professors, and 3) offer research services at significantly subsidized user fees, therefore making it possible for well-funded and unfunded pilot research to be enabled. Sharing reduces the resource footprint, leading to sustainability. By providing access to all, cores offer an inclusive environment. Researchers are not funded at the same level within and across departments. A general rule of thumb is that life sciences receive on average higher dollar awards than physical sciences and social sciences. Subsidized service rates in cores ensure equity across research disciplines and researcher demographics.
If planned strategically, SRRs can contribute to an institution’s financial and environmental sustainability efforts. Co-locating instruments and technologies ensures optimal space use and avoids duplication. This also has the benefits of reducing the carbon footprint from individual research laboratories. For example, at the University of Colorado, Boulder, laboratory space is 20% of the total space usage but represents 40% of the energy consumption. By reducing usage, the energy savings can be reinvested in other initiatives such as personnel salaries.
SRRs possess the skills, experiences, and infrastructure needed to document and follow processes to ensure the reproducibility of experiments and the integrity of research data, leading to a good stewardship of resources.
In November 2020, ABRF hosted a business skills workshop for SRR leaders and staff. The workshop addressed SRR topics from business planning, rate setting, day-to-day operations, strategic planning, and program evaluation. Participants represented SRR leaders from universities, industry, and private research institutions. Participants were asked what they perceived as the value and impact of SRRs at their home institutions. Responses were merged in a world cloud, and Figure 3 represents the key themes that emerged.
Our information gathering highlighted and emphasized the fact that relationships and interactions between SRR stakeholders are key to conceptualizing, planning, strategizing, collecting, utilizing, improving, and communicating the value and impact of SRR successes. It then became clear that we needed to take an extra step to work out best approaches for analyzing these relationships to inform the intended approaches and outcomes.
After identifying all the stakeholders for SRRs, the next step is to categorize and prioritize them. To untangle and make sense of the interaction of the SRRs and its stakeholders, it is necessary to perform a stakeholder analysis. Stakeholder analysis for SRR is a brainstorming exercise to identify individuals, groups, and departments according to their interest, impact, and their knowledge as it relates to their influence on the SRR. The goal of the stakeholder analysis is to determine how best to communicate and engage the stakeholders. Understanding and categorizing the stakeholders allows SRR managers to 1) enlist buy in from influencers, 2) effectively scan the environment and head off any potential areas of conflict, and 3) align the SRR initiatives with institutional vision and goals. The more stakeholders an SRR can identify, the better it can strategically position itself for success.
One way to accomplish this is to group stakeholders based on both the level of interest and the influence (power) they have on SSRs. This method is commonly referred to as the power–interest grid (Figure 4), and the result is stakeholders grouped into 4 categories.
Stakeholders in this category are aware of SRRs but generally exhibit low interest and do not currently have any influence or power in the short to medium term operations of the SRR. SRR staff need to monitor non-users who might transition into becoming users or can refer people to your core. SRRs need to monitor this stakeholder category and observe user trends in this category. Although this category seems uninterested, it is important to keep them appraised by providing metrics that matter to them.
Perhaps this is one of the most elusive but consequential categories of stakeholders. Stakeholders in this category are not your regular users, but they are directly involved in determining resource allocation and policy and hold centers of influence. It is very important to keep these stakeholders satisfied by aligning the values and impact of SRRs with their goals at a high level. The summary table identifies some of the metrics that matter to this category to retain influence and support.
It is understandable that most SRRs pay attention to this category of stakeholders for obvious reasons. These are your past, current, and future users and peers. The SRR needs to keep this category of stakeholders well informed of operations, vision, and strategic goals. The SRR can detail how to inform this group through metrics that matter to them. SRR champions and advocates are found in this category. Influencers are also found in this category. Details are very important to this group, but the SRR needs be careful about the nature of the information shared. Detailed financial projections, although welcome, have limited impact since the power to make decisions does not reside in this category. It is crucial to identify metrics that matter to them.
Of all the stakeholder categories, this is the one that is difficult to access and get attention. They have both power and interest in SRRs. Their interest is more high level and strategic. They want to know how the SRRs align with the broader mission and goals of the institution. Alignment ensures that resources are targeted to those areas of strategic importance. This stakeholder category needs to be actively managed. They have the potential to determine the fate of SRRs. This is where most of the power resides. SRRs need to develop management strategies and tactics and channels to engage these stakeholders. Collecting and keeping track of metrics that demonstrate the strategic value of SRR is a must.
In an effort to present an SRR in this ecosystem under the best light, it is vital that SRR staff and leaders communicate well and often to both these stakeholders. Expectations must be set—effectively pulling aside the curtain—so that PIs can understand the effort/cost that is necessary to offer SRR services (often at a greatly reduced cost). This “sweat equity,” while not tangible in an accounting ledger, is invaluable to the progress of science. In another vein, SRRs must demonstrate their worth as a long-term investment for growing a research program rather than a subsidized cog within the institution
Illustration: stakeholder analysis, the power–interest matrix, and the metrics that matter. The table below helps SSRs quickly and effectively categorize stakeholders and focus communications around metrics that matter for those stakeholders
There has been a significant shift in focus from siloed, single PI–centered research to a team-based, collaborative way of doing research. This enables discoveries to occur at scope, scale, and speed. SRRs have been at the forefront of these endeavors. We set out to determine the impact of SRRs and to establish the best approaches that will help communicate the value of individual SRRs. After more than a year of focused discussions with individuals at all levels within the SRR ecosystem, we found that there was an overwhelming consensus that SRRs’ impact goes way beyond revenue generated through recharge processes. Despite these obvious and inescapable trends, the collective understanding of SRRs, their impact, and their status at several institutions has not changed. We have thus concluded that above all that, as much as communication is critical for measuring SRR value and impact, perhaps more important is knowing what to and how to communicate to each specific group of stakeholders. SRRs must establish which persons/entities are stakeholders in their research ecosystem. A systematic approach to stakeholder analysis will uncover key stakeholders who might not be obvious on the surface but are critical in determining the fate of the SRRs. Then, SRRs must determine what motivates each stakeholder and how to monitor, satisfy, manage, and/or inform on stakeholder expectations.
The authors wish to thank Sheenah Mische for her efforts in collating this and similar manuscripts for the special issue of the Journal of Biomolecular Techniques. Such efforts have the potential to elevate the profile of SRRs and improve communication and understanding among stakeholders.
List of Participants for FASEB SRR Task Force Virtual Roundtable.