Core User Facilities
The Core User Facility (CUF) strategic planning initiative calls for attention to both research and teaching facilities in science, technology, engineering and medical (STEM) disciplines at NIU. The goal of the initiative is to promote the sustainability of these facilities, by ensuring that they have appropriate support staff, maintenance and upkeep, and replacement cycles. The initiative will improve the quality and efficiency of our operations, by allowing multiple users to access shared facilities. At the same time, it will provide higher quality support to our research and teaching efforts, and will better leverage funding opportunities.
Research and teaching in the STEM disciplines rely heavily on state-of-the-art equipment and technical support. The purchase, maintenance and operation costs of such equipment typically place it outside of the reach of individual investigators. When such funds are found to purchase equipment, there is often a challenge to provide adequate staff, maintenance and upgrades to support the facility, or to provide for long-term replacement of equipment.
Over the years, the university has built up research and teaching facilities, but these have been established in an uneven fashion. There are some shared research facilities, and a variety of equipment and facilities within individual laboratories. In some cases, there exist well-equipped laboratories and sophisticated instrumentation other cases; in other cases, equipment has not been adequately staffed or maintained. Teaching laboratories are likewise unevenly equipped and maintained, without a coordinated structure in place for maintaining and upgrading equipment.
The lack of a structured approach to supporting STEM facilities costs the university in a variety of ways. Equipment and facilities have been needlessly duplicated, while existing facilities have been allowed to fall into disrepair. The lack of appropriate staffing means that researchers who control equipment must either take time away from their own work to make their equipment available to others, or must deny others access to their facilities. The university is not taking full advantage of opportunities for external funding, including both opportunities for equipment purchase and opportunities to support operating costs on external grants.
Therefore, this strategic planning initiative calls for the creation of a system of core user facilities: multi-user research facilities with dedicated staff and cost-recovery mechanisms that will recapture the funds needed to operate the facility from fees paid by the users. There is a parallel need to ensure appropriate support for the universityâs teaching labs.
There are exciting and innovative research efforts in the physical and life sciences taking place at NIU. These efforts can be unequivocally strengthened and made nationally competitive through investments in new and synergistic collaborations. If it becomes possible to coordinate the use of existing facilities and future core user facilities we will be able to optimize resources, and reduce redundancy to the benefit of investigators at NIU. New investments in increased opportunities for interactions of principal investigators in common focus areas would similarly enhance interdisciplinary and complementary efforts, and thus contribute to increased innovation and competitiveness. Increasing the use and access to staffed Core User Facilities will be of great benefit to the system and the region and strengthen the research efforts and collaborations across the university.
The creation of core user facilities will require the design and implementation of new models for supporting research and teaching laboratories. The key elements of the design stage will be:
- the development of a basic template or business model for research facilities;
- the development of new funding models to enable users to access the facilities; and
- the development of maintenance and upgrade cycle for teaching laboratories.
A successful business model to establish a facility as a cost-recovery center will require a careful balance of factors. First, they must charge enough in user fees to meet their costs. Next, since access to funding from federal grants will be a critical source of revenue for most facilities, the model must be fully compliant with federal funding guidelines. In particular, in setting rates, they must have a preferred rate for federal grants, and must recover costs from all users if they do so for users with federal funding. Third, there must be some means of providing access for members of the university community who cannot afford the federal rate. Finally, they can recover costs from users outside of the university, but they must be competitively priced to do so. A careful business model is therefore needed to balance these concerns. The strategy is to examine best practices at other universities to develop a basic model or template for facility business plans, and then adapt that model to the particular circumstances of each facility.
Complementing the business models for the facilities, there must be new funding models for their clients. There are several aspects to this:
- Working with individual investigators to modify their external funding applications, so that they build appropriate user fees into their grants.
- Reviewing indirect cost recovery policies to ensure that they are compliant with federal guidelines.
- Creating a mechanism for access for members of the NIU community who have valid scientific needs, but who lack access to resources to pay for the use of the facilities.
- Promoting the availability of our facilities to external clients.
The implementation stage will have the following steps:
- A needs assessment of existing facilities, to determine the cost of establishing that facility on the core user model, and the anticipated results of doing so;
- A determination of which research facilities are to be structured under that template as core user facilities;
- Providing short-term strategic planning funding to enable facilities to be organized on the new model, and to support them until the cost-recovery mechanism allows them to become self-sustaining.
- The implementation stage for each facility will include a start-up period, in which university funds are used to hire and train staff, upgrade equipment, facilities and space, and initiate cos-recovery operations. The facility will then use the recovered funds to cover ongoing costs, and so become self-sustaining. The template that will guide this process will address the key elements needed in creating and sustaining multi-user facilities as cost recovery centers. The application, which will be done on a competitive basis, will consider the indvidual circumstances of each facility, the requirements for establishing it as a CUF, and the likelihood for sustainability on that basis.
Given the complexity of the CUF model, it is essential that careful planning precede implementation. The key steps in creating a CUF model for NIU are:
- Develop a business plan for multi-user research facilities; and a business plan for key teaching laboratories
- Inventory existing facilities to determine which should have the CUF models applied to them, and the implications for each of doing so.
- Implement the plans and take facilities through their startup phases.
- Establish mechanisms to provide ongoing oversight of the CUF process and budget.
The first step is the development of templates for business plans that can be used to evaluate research labs and teaching labs. These templates must address both the physical aspects of the facility (current condition of the facility; staffing needs to operate it; planned lifecycle; etc.) and the financial aspects (cost of operation; demand; existence of competing facilities on campus and in the region; market rate for the services it would provide; requirements for compliance with federal funding guidelines; etc.), and provide a model for integrating all of those considerations to determine the conditions under which the facility could operate successfully as a cost recovery center.
Once the model has been established, a survey of existing facilities can provide the data needed to evaluate them against that model. This should produce estimates of short-term and long-term costs for each facility. Given those estimates, there will then need to be administrative decisions as to which facilities to establish as core user facilities.
A separate but parallel process will operate for teaching laboratories: develop a template for evaluating the short-term and long-term costs for maintaining each facility at an appropriate level; gather information about existing facilities; apply the template to each; and make decisions and allocations for a long-term funding plan for teaching laboratories.
The first steps in the design stage are now underway:
- The Hanover Research Group is conducting a study of best practices at peer institutions.
- An advisory group, consisting of representatives from Engineering, Health & Human Sciences, Liberal Arts & Sciences, Research & Graduate Studies and Finance & Facilities is being assembled.
Next steps will involve refining the preliminary report from Hanover and seeking detailed information about the models used at other institutions. A tentative timeline for the project is
- Develop business model templates for research facilities and teaching facilities
- Gather information on existing facilities
- Develop new funding models, including new approaches to external grants and creation of internal Competitive User Fund
- Apply business model template to facilities, and select facilities for structuring as Core User Facilities
- Begin implementation of new grant efforts, including application for NSF Major Research Infrastructure (MRI) grants
- Develop rotation schedule for maintenance and upgrades of teaching facilities
- Initiate restructuring and upgrades of selected facilities
- Identify redundant research facilities that can be eliminated, and reassign space and facilities accordingly
2011 â 2013
- Move core facilities to self-sufficiency
- Develop training models that engage students as part of the CUF staff
- Create new facilities on the basis of the CUF model
- Bring Competitive User Fund to full funding
- Promote and advertise availability of facilities to external clients
The expected outcomes of the project include:
- Increased efficiency in utilization of research facilities
- Increased productivity in experimental sciences
- Increased grant support for facility use
- Increased use of university facilities by external clients
- Increased efficiency in space allocations for experimental sciences
- Increased success in recruiting and retaining students in STEM disciplines