Source: Science Photo Library
Universities feeling the pinch from cuts to government capital funding and the science spending freeze could ease the burden by tapping into the hundreds of millions of pounds hiding in laboratory freezers, ventilation systems and teaching labs.
The Safe, Successful, Sustainable Laboratories (S-Lab) initiative, which was kick-started with funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, seeks to help UK universities better design and use laboratories, thereby reducing waste and energy consumption and improving collaboration.
Because the money saved can be ploughed back into research and teaching, the initiative has grown in popularity in today’s austere times as a “gap in the market” that supports high-quality science, observed S-Lab director, Peter James, professor of environmental management at the University of Bradford.
While some successful undertakings have required significant capital spending, others are breathtakingly simple. A scheme to recycle the water used in the cooling of glassware at University College London’s department of chemistry, for example – pioneered by Andrea Sella, a professor of materials and inorganic chemistry – reduced water consumption by 70 per cent and now saves the lab £40,000 a year.
More capital-intensive projects include the University of Liverpool’s £25 million Central Teaching Laboratories, which took individual teaching facilities away from the physical and environmental science departments, centralising them in a single three-storey teaching lab.
The move increased lab usage rate from an average of about 20 per cent to 48 per cent and increased the amount of practical work for first- and second-year physics students by 30 to 50 per cent.
Over the past two years both projects were recognised in the annual S-Lab awards, the most recent of which took place on 18 and 19 June at the Effective Laboratory Conference, also organised by S-Lab and held at the University of Liverpool.
Despite being in only its second year, the event attracted almost 300 people, including vice-chancellors and international delegates from as far afield as the US and New Zealand.
That thing at the back of the fridge
Discussions at the event covered a wide range of ways to improve the design and running of labs, but many ideas are applicable across the sector, said Professor James.
Fridges and freezers are an area for significant potential savings. In a large lab, the total power bill can be well over £1 million a year, and there are many opportunities to reduce it, he said. Just figuring out what proportion of the samples contained in a research group’s freezers are really needed (or implementing a tracking system, as is done at the University of Manchester) is an easy way to reduce costs.
At Queen Mary, University of London, an audit done at the opening of its Blizard Institute found that 50 per cent of incoming samples, which were being expensively maintained, could be discarded. “In some cases people won’t know what’s even in the samples, but dare not do anything about it because they think they might be important,” Professor James added.
A single fume cupboard, meanwhile, can consume as much energy as the average UK house, if not more, he added. Reducing air flow rates at night and ensuring that cupboard sashes are always lowered (aided at the University of Warwick by a fluorescent display that changes colour according to their status) can achieve big savings.
Other advances have come through technological innovation. Newcastle University picked up the S‑Lab Refurbished Lab award in 2013 for its Bedson Building, which was designed around a new cyclotron, funded in part by the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.
The machine, which is used to create isotope tracers for medical imaging, is one-tenth of the regular size and one of only two of its kind in the world. Its use has reduced the cost of research and tracer production, as well as the space needed and radiation created, by about 80 per cent, explained Dave Pearson, senior project manager in Newcastle’s Estates Support Service.
The high cost of laboratory space is a perennial concern. It can be three to five times more expensive than office space, which is one of the reasons science courses are priced higher than their humanities counterparts and why research itself can often be so costly, said Professor James.
In contrast with the Central Teaching Laboratories at Liverpool, at some institutions it is necessary to break down a single teaching activity into multiple sessions simply because the labs are too small to fit larger groups, he added.
“If you can make better use of that space through improved design and reworking poorly designed storage space, and get more teaching or science outputs from it, you’re going to get millions of pounds a year in benefits across the sector,” Professor James concluded.
Despite such examples of good practice naturally revealing how inefficient some processes are, he is keen to stress that the idea behind S‑Lab is not to be “a bunch of cost-cutters”.
“The whole aim is to release more money for science, research and technical support and infrastructure. The biggest potential benefit…may well be productivity,” he said.
For academics, redesigning teaching labs frees up time as well as office space while increasing students’ interaction with lecturers and each other, said Professor James.
Many of the changes can serve to reduce a lab’s environmental impact. Good design – which puts people first, including technical, support and maintenance staff – can also improve people’s working lives, he added.
For example, the University of Central Lancashire, which was shortlisted for the 2012 S‑Lab awards, undertook detailed analysis of laboratory work patterns to optimise the layout of its new £12.5 million J. B. Firth Building, cutting travel distances and improving the working environment within it.
Has anyone got the big picture?
Given the clear advantages of schemes that S-Lab recognises, why are there not more of them?
The main reason, said Professor James, lies in the fragmentation within universities. Laboratories are notoriously complex places: responsibility for procurement, materials, support staff and suppliers often varies from group to group.
“Quite often no one has a full understanding of the system, and it’s very difficult without a major push to bring all those different dimensions together,” he said.
Better leadership from senior management, and mandates from funding bodies, will help, he added. Efforts such as Research Councils UK’s call for universities to share more equipment are already making a difference.
A survey of delegates carried out after the 2012 conference certainly suggested that a drive to implement change is afoot. Some 96 per cent said they saw scope to significantly increase laboratory efficiency and effectiveness without compromising quality of work and safety.
But does Professor James fear that the government will see the efforts of S-Lab as evidence that the sector can handle more cost-cutting? “Efficiency savings” might have positive effects, but as in the RCUK case, they are often spurred by cuts.
It is a danger, he acknowledged, but if evidence exists that things can be done differently, competition between universities alone will provide enough pressure to bring about change.
“Any universities managing to do more science with their resources have got an advantage over others. And that is something we’re seeing happening already,” Professor James said.