Over the last decade, most chemistry and biology departments have been increasingly adopting ‘core facility’ models for acquiring latest technologies. The idea is simple. The institutes have ‘core facilities’ for providing various services to researchers working in different research areas. The core facilities are expected to run in ‘business-like’ manner, which means they are supposed to provide services at low cost and do it as ‘efficiently’ as possible.
Few months back, we were chatting with a professor running such a facility, and when he spoke ‘business-like’, that caught our attention. We asked him several questions to figure out how the business gets run, but his numbers did not add up. For example, if we started a similar business right outside his university, we could not make it succeed. Why so? It is because he did not have to pay any rent and he did not have to worry about cost of depreciation of his instruments. Those were covered by the university. He only had to worry about hiring technicians to run the instruments/software, and deliver data to different PIs at the lowest possible cost. He explained that in exchange for free rent and machine cost, he is expected to charge lower fee to University projects than those from the outside.
Even though the above arrangement seems like a good compromise, it is a highly inefficient and dead-end model in our opinion. The core facility is NOT a real business, because it is held hostage by the university. On the other hand, the employees of the facility are not equivalent to the professors, (who become PIs for projects), even though the professors are way behind on the technology scale compared to those working directly with instruments at core facilities. Finally, core facilities are expected to keep costs down, and therefore have very little room for trying different things (aka R&D;). So, the managers of core facilities are essentially expected to run high-tech businesses, but with very limited funds for R&D.;
The failure of the model can already be seen at a higher scale. Few years back, we were talking a gentleman running a big genome sequencing center, and from his description of the operation, it seemed like he was expected (by NIH) to run the sequencing center as a giant nation-wide ‘core facility’. Essentially, he needed to focus on keeping cost/base down, and collaborate with researchers at different universities to form teams and sequence genomes. Their bioinformatics budget was limited, because NIH diktat for them was to only assemble the genome and find genes at lowest cost, and then let the community figure out the rest. He did execute his model well, but unlike real businesses like BGI, his hands were tied in many respect. For example, when Complete Genomics went down, he did not have the authority to acquire that company to expand his business reach.
A business without reasonable control of its destiny is not a business. A research facility without power to do research is not a research facility. ‘Core facility’ fails on both aspects, and we will be surprised, if their managers do not go nuts trying to fill too many ambiguous roles.