Equipment goes down the tubes...

June 7, 1996

Kam Patel reports on a survey that reveals many research laboratories are limping along with decrepit equipment. Centrifuges, fermenters, scintillation counters, computers and spectrophotometers - some of the most basic pieces of research equipment in any well-found biology laboratory.

That just such workhorse equipment is at, or close to the end, of its working life is therefore of considerable concern to University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology's department of biochemistry and applied molecular biology. But finding the money to replace the kit is proving to be an uphill struggle.

John Hyde, senior lecturer at the department, says a recent survey of major items of equipment by the laboratory superintendent estimated that only half was of adequate quality. Thirty per cent was found to be good or very good. The remainder was in poor or very poor condition.

Yesterday's report on the state of research equipment in universities shows the UMIST researchers are by no means alone. Many other departments with a reputation for top-quality research (never mind those lower down the league) are having similar problems.

Dr Hyde, who is also chairman of the department's equipment committee, says it is difficult to replace equipment such as centrifuges and computers on research council or charity grants. The items are also not sufficiently "eye-catching" when it comes to seeking funds from the university's own kitty.

The kind of workhorse equipment in desperate need of replacement at UMIST is used by most research groups at the department, which has a strong reputation in genomics. But Dr Hyde says: "The DNA sequencing equipment we have is now inadequate to cope with demand. We have always had a strong presence in biotechnological processing, but the main fermenters we purchased in 1980-81 are just about worn out."

He says many items of equipment require air conditioning to work properly. "Getting the necessary facilities installed has been a major financial battle," he says. Maintaining sophisticated equipment is very costly and paying for such work is threatening to consume the department's entire equipment budget. Some useful and functional equipment has been mothballed to reduce exposure to further maintenance. To bring the department's facilities up to scratch requires Pounds 4.25 million.

Dr Hyde stresses that the department continues to compete internationally on several fronts despite these problems but adds: "While our equipment situation is certainly better than average for this country, it is probably worse than average compared with similar departments in other advanced countries. Our laboratories would also be considered wanting by industrial standards."

"Fire-fighting" necessary to keep out-of-date equipment alive has damaged the morale of academics trying to perform top-level research.

Echoing the views of many other research groups, he says: "The fact many of our groups do compete at an international level is a testimony to their dedication, skills and application. How long this can be maintained is a major question."

Scientists at Edinburgh University's department of physiology are also worried about their laboratory facilities. Mike Hunter, convenor of the department's equipment committee, says some of the incubators used to grow cells and laminar flow hoods used to manipulate cells are "secondhand and of indeterminate age". Applications for air conditioning in the tissue culture suite have been rejected or delayed.

As many researchers in different laboratories share such equipment, it is not easy to coordinate its replacement or upgrading. Funds have been difficult to obtain from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. "The total available has declined in real terms and will be further hit by the 30 per cent cut in capital allocation announced in the last budget," Mr Hunter says.

But despite equipment difficulties the department has been "remarkably successful in obtaining support for research.

Concern over maintaining expensive but essential equipment is also voiced by Sarah Hargreaves, administrator at the Oxford Centre for Molecular Sciences. Research there is helping to underpin the national effort in drug discovery and molecular design that ultimately leads to new therapeutic strategies. The centre brings together academics from seven departments at the university. Their research is "totally dependent" on major equipment.

The centre has few problems in the supply and maintenance of equipment, Ms Hargreaves says, because it is committed to highly skilled support staff and the forging of links with equipment manufacturers such as Oxford Instruments. But she fears finding funds in the future may become much more difficult - especially in relation to support staff and maintenance: "There is a trend towards competition for large equipment purchases but if it is not going to be possible to find resources to upgrade and maintain the kit, it becomes very difficult to make best use of it."

She says the centre has set up equipment facilities to the highest international standards in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography, mass spectrometry and a wide range of supporting techniques. "Maintaining such facilities is becoming increasingly expensive but failure to do so will undoubtedly threaten both the centre's international standing and our excellence within the United Kingdom. It will also weaken the UK pharmaceutical industry's ability to compete commercially, as it relies on a supply of trained graduates and postgraduates as well as on collaborations that use our facilities."

Donations from industry, coupled with a reputation for top-quality research, are helping the mechanical engineering department at Imperial College London, to attract funding for equipment. While this may mean it is relatively better placed than other institutions, Paul Isherwood, the department's assistant director, says securing general-use items costing more than Pounds 50,000 is proving difficult. In the past the department has put together packages for buying such items where part of the money is obtained from external sources and the rest is sought from the college's allocation of funding council funds. The Government cuts in capital allocation will undermine this ability in the future. And it is highly unlikely industry will make up the shortfall: "Firms are unhappy about providing even 50 per cent funding for relatively standard but expensive kit, since they feel this should be provided by the Government."

Research at the department is exposed to major breakdowns of essential equipment. Dr Isherwood says: "Repairs and/or replacement of such kit can be extremely expensive. Even relatively routine maintenance can be quite a burden as equipment becomes more sophisticated. Another big difficulty is funding equipment for new staff, especially those wishing to venture into new areas. By definition these are untried developments and sponsors have some reluctance in making significant contributions."

KEY FINDINGS

* Firms will not use ill-equipped departments and say funding cuts will make matters much worse.

* Multinational companies are already putting academic research work overseas.

* Industry says the Government should find more money for university equipment and has criticised matching fund schemes. Firms want greater concentration of equipment in centres of excellence.

* Research council provision for equipment has barely risen over the past ten years, going from 34 per cent to 38 per cent of total spend, while funding councils' expenditure has slumped from 46 per cent to per cent.

* Most equipment is in a small number of universities. Just two account for 16 per cent of total equipment expenditure; five for 30 per cent and 13 for 50 per cent.

* Half the national stock of equipment is in good condition, 26 per cent adequate and 17 per cent poor or very poor.

* Some 40 per cent of equipment has been bought in the past five years; 36 per cent six to 15 years ago; 21 per cent is over 15 years old; and 9 per cent is over 25 years old. Mechanical engineering equipment is in particularly bad shape.

*25 per cent of equipment will be unusable in the next three years; 60 per cent in the next five; and 90 per cent in the next ten.

* Private sources of money for equipment have remained constant at 8 per cent of total spend throughout the 1990s. Charities accounted for 13 per cent of spend and are the fastest growing source of support.

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