SciLifeLab – technology life cycles (May 24, 2017)
SciLifeLab´s mission as a national infrastructure is to provide advanced technologies to the Swedish research community. These technologies should be such that they enable internationally leading research in molecular biosciences and so comprehensive in nature that it make sense to concentrate these activities at one site or coordinate their development at several sites. Importantly, the facilities should be nurtured by interactions with scientists, users and technology developers.
So how do we ensure we constantly have the best possible selection of technologies? What determines the lifespan of a SciLifeLab technology or an associated facility? These are difficult questions, not least as supporting a new technology may imply that the support of some existing activities may need to be withdrawn since the total funding for SciLifeLab will not grow over the next 4-year period. On the other hand, we clearly see that technology cycles are more and more rapid in today’s world and also more expensive than ever before.
In this community update, we focus on the life cycle of SciLifeLab facilities and technologies and share our thoughts and strategies that are currently being developed for ensuring a constantly up-to-date infrastructure. We are eager to get your comment on this topic, preferably by sending us an e-mail.
SciLifeLab facilities should ideally provide the most relevant technologies within a specific service area and it is expected that facilities and platforms continuously update their repertoire of technologies to qualify for national status. Hence the sustainability of the facility is dependent on the facility embracing the most up to date technologies. In addition, the infrastructure platforms at SciLifeLab have the responsibility to scout for new technologies and facilities to include in their selection of infrastructure capabilities. This is illustrated in the figure below.
New technologies at SciLifeLab can be developed by using the internal resources at the facilities; typically facilities are using up to 20% of their time for R&D. Also, funding for pilot facilities (see below) or new technologies help to retain the technology base of the infrastructures. In addition, successful facilities are typically surrounded by research groups consisting of SciLifeLab fellows and faculty that either take part in technology development or suggest new technologies that should be developed.
Uppsala and Stockholm separately had their first call for pilot facility projects. These were meant to fund the development of cutting-edge new technologies with future potential to be included as National service facilities or as new technologies within the present national facilities. The call resulted in the funding of 12 pilot facility projects. For an overview, see https://www.scilifelab.se/platforms/pilot-facilities-projects/. We believe pilot facility projects calls are an important source for new technologies and the management group is discussing with universities and the national board about the possibility of arranging a new joint pilot technology/facility call during 2018, which hopefully could also be open to the rest of the Swedish research community.
In 2016, SciLifeLab performed the first internal international evaluation of all existing national facilities as well as of 16 new university facilities that were suggested as candidate national facilities by the four host universities. This led to funding allocations for most facilities for 2+2 years, the start of five new facilities and the phase down of funding to five facilities. The phase down of funding is available for 18 months to enable the host university to plan the changes and may result in continuing the facility operations as a local core facility. However, if the facility is not receiving any other support than SciLifeLab funding and does not acquire much user fees, this may not always be possible. Phasing down of funding for some facilities is necessary, as SciLifeLab needs to have funding available for new facilities and infrastructures. In many respects, this is similar to having your grant turned down as a scientist. Infrastructure funding is also competitive similar to science funding in general.
The international evaluation of SciLifeLab national infrastructures is planned to take place every four years with the possibility to include new technologies/facilities in a mid-term evaluation. Indeed, our ambition is to make another call for national facilities during 2018. See the figure below illustrating a potential Life Cycle of SciLifeLab facilities.
Other national infrastructure support for life sciences
Besides the SciLifeLab infrastructures funded by the government budget, the Swedish Research Council (VR) also supports national research infrastructures. Many of the SciLifeLab platforms are co-funded by VR. VR performs an inventory of infrastructure needs every two years. The inventory is carried out by VR with help from a “Universities Reference Group for Research Infrastructure” (URFI). The outcome of the inventory is used as the basis for the targeted call for funding of infrastructure. Also, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation (KAW) is funding infrastructures that are part of SciLifeLab Platforms. SciLifeLab is engaged in discussions with both VR and KAW to coordinate infrastructure support and life cycles to make them serve optimally Swedish researchers. All parties also now have budget restrictions and want to make use of their funding in the most efficient complementary way. SciLifeLab, with its community of expert users and facilities, will need to come up with suggestions on which facilities and technologies will be needed in SciLifeLab.
Olli Kallioniemi and the SciLifeLab national management group