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J Biomol Tech. 2009 July; 20(3): 180–185.
PMCID: PMC2700468

Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities Survey: Service Laboratory Funding

Abstract

In 2007, The Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities (ABRF) Survey Committee surveyed the ABRF membership and scientists at-large concerning the current state of funding in service-oriented laboratories. Questions pertained to services offered, cost recovery, capital equipment funding, and future outlook. The web-based survey, available for 3 weeks, achieved participation from 209 respondents in 13 countries, 77% of which represented academic laboratories. Most respondents (75%) directed their laboratories. Laboratories depend largely on institutional support and customer recharges to fund operations, but National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation Shared Instrumentation Grant programs are considered critical to meeting future needs. Source allocations supporting capital equipment acquisitions, operations, and laboratory director salary are presented.

Keywords: Institutional Support, Core Laboratory, Capital Equipment, ABRF

INTRODUCTION

Perhaps the most important questions facing core and service facilities today relate to funding. Whether the core facility is academic, government, or commercial, questions concerning charges to customers, funding for new instrumentation purchases, and staffing are always at the forefront for facility management. Although recent presentations and publications have pertained to aspects of operation and instrumentation for specific types of biomedical service laboratories,1,2 only a limited number of questions concerned funding mechanisms. To address a wide range of funding issues, The Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities (ABRF) Survey Committee presented a web-based survey to the ABRF's membership and beyond, posting links via an internet discussion group (ABRF Electronic Discussion Group). In addition, the survey was advertised in a trade journal (ProteoMonitor). Survey results were presented as a poster at the 2008 ABRF Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, UT (www.abrf.org).

MATERIALS AND METHODS

The survey was posted via the internet survey provider: SurveyMonkey (http://www.surveymonkey.com/), and was composed of 14 questions (see Supplemental Material). It was accessed by a password made available to ABRF members and ABRF Electronic Discussion Group members in an effort to limit spam survey respondents. The survey ran for 3 weeks in September 2007. Data were collated and plotted using Microsoft Excel.

RESULTS

A summary of survey participants is shown in Figure 1. These questions concerned the type of laboratory (e.g., academic, industrial, etc.), the length of time the laboratory has existed, membership status in ABRF, and the laboratory role of the survey respondent. The majority of respondents included directors or managers representing academic service organizations existing for 6 or more years.

FIGURE 1
Summary of survey participants.

A wide range of technologies are offered by these laboratories, as presented in Figure 2. The majority of the responding laboratories provides mass spectrometry (MS) or DNA sequencing/genotyping. MS also dominated as a service offered by laboratories less than 3 years old.

FIGURE 2
(A) Services offered by 200 responding laboratories. (B) Services offered by 23 laboratories less than 3 years old. Abbreviations: LC-MS (liquid chromatography-MS), DNA Seq (DNA sequencing), 2D (two-dimensional), DIGE (differential gel electrophoresis), ...

Following these questions characterizing the laboratories, the focus of the survey shifted to sources and use of funds beginning with, “How is your laboratory supported (excluding capital equipment purchases and director's salary)?” Figure 3 presents the responses submitted to this question. A mixture of institutional support, customer recharges, and grants funds most of today's service laboratories. Interestingly, only 13% of the laboratories are supported solely by customer recharge, emphasizing the extent to which service laboratories depend on institutional support, grant support, or both. This level of total cost recovery has been consistent over the several surveys in the reference list.36 It is important to note that institutions are supporting (partially or fully) the day-to-day operations of over 70% of the responding facilities, even when capital equipment purchases and directors' salaries are excluded. Similarly, grants provide support to over 50% of the facilities.

FIGURE 3
Sources of laboratory support (excluding funds for capital equipment and director's salary). Abbreviation: Inst. (institutional)

Next, the laboratories were queried about how their funding was distributed among institutional support, grant support, and customer recharges. These data, presented in Figure 4A–C, show individual laboratory sources of income, expanding on the data from Figure 3. Again, although some laboratories rely solely on customer fees, this mechanism is not the predominant one funding most laboratories' survival. Median percentages of income (excluding capital equipment and director's salary) received from institutions, grants, and recharges were 25%, 5%, and 50%, respectively.

FIGURE 4
Extent to which service laboratories are funded via (A) institution, (B) customer recharge, or (C) grant (excluding director's salary and capital equipment). Individual responses are sorted by percent support for each chart.

A breakdown of laboratory costs (i.e., labor, consumables, service contracts, etc.) is presented in Figure 5A–D. The data represent the percentage of costs that is recovered for specific categories of operating expenditures. Although a high percentage of service fees covers consumables (relatively low cost), less of the service fee revenue is applied to labor costs. No doubt, this difference is a result of the higher costs associated with personnel, as well as opportunities to fund staff via other mechanisms, i.e., institutional or grant support. The median value of costs recovered for labor was ~50%; for consumables, ~70%; and for service contracts, ~20%.

FIGURE 5
Extent to which various expenses are recovered from service fees: (A) labor, (B) consumables, (C) service contracts, and (D) instrument depreciation. Individual responses are sorted by percent recovery for each chart.

Approximately 50% of the survey respondents identified themselves as facility directors (see Fig. 1). The survey requested information about the source of funding for the facility director's salary, and these data are presented in Figure 6. Directors are supported largely by internal funds, and 44% of these positions are fully subsidized by institutions, and over 70% of the positions are institutionally subsidized to some extent, once again, reflecting on the importance of an institution's commitment to a service laboratory's existence. From the data presented thus far, it is clear that institutional support coupled with outside funding (grants, endowments, etc.) constitute the primary mode of survival for most laboratories. User fees are not the predominant funding source for core facility operations.

FIGURE 6
Percentage of facility director's salary obtained from institutional monies, based on 141 responses.

Another major source of expenditures for any service laboratory is new purchases of capital equipment. The survey included several questions concerning funding of capital equipment as well as the ease of obtaining funds for new instrumentation. The first question asked in this regard was to estimate the distribution of the indicated sources of funds for purchasing capital equipment, such as internal institutional support, federal grants, state funds, start-up funding, etc. These data are presented in Figure 7

FIGURE 7
Mechanisms supporting capital equipment purchases in service laboratories based on 160 responses. Abbreviations: Institute (internal institutional support), Grant (competitive government grants), SIG (shared instrument grant), State (state/provincial/local ...

Again, internal institutional support plays a major role in acquiring capital equipment for laboratories, followed by competitive government grants and SIGs. Charitable foundations and donors clearly comprise an important source of funds, as the number of facilities citing charitable donations was about two-thirds of the number citing SIGs.

Responses provided by facilities less than 3 years in age were mined to ascertain which facilities (categorized by technology) were receiving internal organizational support to acquire capital equipment; i.e., for which technologies are organizations instituting new cores and committing internal funds? Eight of the 11 new facilities providing this information offered MS, and five offered DIGE, signaling the importance administrators ascribed to accessible proteomic and MS services. Similarly, 65% of the 23 newly established facilities offered MS, and 30% offered DIGE and/or 2D-PAGE. Among <3-year-old facilities overall, internal expenditures for capital equipment ranged from 15% to 100% of equipment cost, with the median value corresponding to ~50%.

To ascertain the impact of the current research funding climate on capital equipment purchases, the survey queried laboratories concerning the extent of difficulty experienced in obtaining these funds. That data are presented in Figure 8. Responses were split fairly evenly between “Can be done with proper justification” and “Difficult.” It is not known how these percentages have changed from previous years when, especially, academic research dollars were more abundant, as data are not available. The current budget constraints on federal granting institutions such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have, without doubt, led to dramatic decreases in funds available for service laboratories as well as their principle investigator counterparts. To further address the importance of federal dollars specifically for capital equipment, it was asked, “How important are the NIH and/or NSF Shared Equipment programs in support of capital equipment for your laboratory?” These data are presented in Figure 9.

FIGURE 8
Perceived difficulty obtaining capital equipment.
FIGURE 9
Perceived importance of NIH and NSF SIGs for acquiring capital equipment.

DISCUSSION

These data show that roughly 41% of those surveyed considered the NIH and NSF programs important or vital to their ability to obtain capital equipment and thus, remain current with technology. Another 30% view this funding mechanism as being a possibly important source of funding in the future, which may indicate changing trends in internal funding mechanisms. These two categories represent the views of nearly 200 core facilities that responded to this survey. These facilities support the research efforts of thousands of researchers, extending the impact of federally funded research resource instrumentation very broadly.

CONCLUSIONS

The ABRF survey regarding service laboratory funding had 209 respondents, with participation from laboratories in 13 different countries. The majority of the respondents were ABRF members (84%) and from academic laboratories (77%). In addition, 75% were laboratory directors and/or laboratory managers. Institutions are supporting (partially or fully) the day-to-day operations of over 70% of the responding facilities, even when capital equipment purchases and directors' salaries are excluded. Program grants provide important supplements as well, supplying some level of funds to over 50% of facilities. Institutional support was the most used mechanism for acquiring capital equipment by a nearly two-fold margin, followed by competitive government grants and SIGs. NIH and NSF SIG programs were considered critical to meeting future needs, and many laboratories felt these programs, although not currently being used, would be needed in the future. The number of facilities citing charitable foundation and donor sources of capital equipment funds was approximately two-thirds the number citing SIGs. The survey solicited additional comments, a selection of which is included below. All comments, along with the poster presented at the 2008 ABRF Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, UT, can be viewed and downloaded as a pdf file on the ABRF web page (www.abrf.org).

Selected comments from survey respondents:

  • ❖ We would not exist outside of a strong “subsidy” from the research program of the director, through which equipment maintenance and upgrading are possible.
  • ❖ I have always hoped that someday NIH or NSF would provide a grant structure that would fund core facilities separately for costs other than instruments. It would be a better research investment than any R01 I've read in the last 10 years.
  • ❖ Charge-back is a real pain in the neck; a more useful factor is the number of users. This has helped justify institutional funding for capital equipment and of course, that people are satisfied and publishing papers because of the core laboratory.
  • ❖ Funding for academic service laboratories depends heavily on the number of similar laboratories at the institution and the number of clients expected to use the service laboratory. Too many academic (core) laboratories “die” because multiple academic units set up competing service laboratories. Also, the dependence on NIH/NSF SIG programs is far too high for academic institutions. Not many universities have viable plans for long-term support of service laboratories.
  • ❖ Governor (X) just vetoed a state program for matching funds for federal grant applications and for capital equipment assistance in recruiting faculty. This will be a disaster if not reversed. State/university operational support has dropped 20% over the last 5 years.
  • ❖ I try to guide the institution to follow the excellent guide, Angeletti et al. Research technologies: fulfilling the promise.7 I circulate this to all faculty hires. This article is the most important I have ever read. It is my mantra! Yet, others do not share the vision, inspiration, and wisdom.
  • ❖ Our institution has a good record of supporting instrumentation purchases for resource facilities but a woeful record in providing/maintaining personnel support (salaries).
  • ❖ NIH SIGs are absolutely indispensable; other NIH funding also.
  • ❖ Difficult times.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

J. T. S.: This project has been funded in whole or in part with federal funds from the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, under contract no. HHSN261200800001E. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government. The ABRF Survey Committee also acknowledges the ABRF Membership Committee for critical reading and suggestions to the survey, as well as all of those who responded to the survey. James A. Atwood III and Michelle L. Cilia provided useful discussion and critical reading of the manuscript.

REFERENCES

1. Sol-Church K, Bintzler D, Forrester J, Keefe R, Kristt D, Lytle C. FARG 2006 Survey: A Comparative Study of the Methodology and Instrumentation Trends of Laboratories Performing DNA Genotyping, http://www.abrf.org/index.cfm/group.show/GenomicVariation.40.htm
2. Wiebe GJ, Pershad R, Escobar H, et al. DNA Sequencing Research Group (DSRG) 2003: a general survey of core DNA sequencing facilities. J Biomol Tech 2003; 14: 231– 237
3. Ivanetich K, Niece RL, Rohde M, Fowler E, Hayes TK. Biotechnology core facilities: trends and update. FASEB J 1993; 7: 1109– 1114 [PubMed]
4. Ivanetich KM, Bibbs L, Niece RL, et al. Biotechnology instrumentation survey. Genet Eng News 1997; 17: 17, 19, 47
5. Niece RL, Naeve C, Williams KR. Activities and history of ABRF. In Flickinger MC, Drew SW, editors. (eds.): The Encyclopedia of Bioprocess Technology: Fermentation, Biocatalysis, & Bioseparation, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 1999; 2089– 2120
6. McMillen DA, Bibbs L, Denslow N, et al. Biotechnology core laboratories: an overview. J Biomol Tech 2000; 11: 1– 11 [PMC free article] [PubMed]
7. Angeletti RH, Bonewald LF, DeJongh K, Niece R, Rush J, Stults J. Research technologies: fulfilling the promise. FASEB J 1999; 13: 595– 601 [PubMed]

Articles from Journal of Biomolecular Techniques : JBT are provided here courtesy of The Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities