“Core Facilities are the future of our research infrastructure”

(01-06-2021) In the coming academic year, research centers will be able to apply for recognition as Core Facility at Ghent University. But what are CFs, exactly, and why do we need them? We offer a brief look into the future of research.

What are Core Facilities?

Since 2018, a group of Ghent University employees have been sharing ideas with each other about how they can deal with the various challenges facing the labs at Ghent University. This ‘Lab Community’ is a type learning network that focusses on sustainability, financial stewardship, support regarding technology and equipment, public visibility, etc. To deal with many of these challenges, the community members quickly came to the conclusion that a broader Core Facility policy was necessary.

A Core Facility organises available expertise and specialized infrastructure, such as equipment and e-resources – university-wide – into one entity. The overarching goal is to make existing research infrastructure more efficient and professional, which improves availability for researchers, both those within Ghent University as in the broader public. Core Facilities receive support and financing in order to, eventually, become financially self-sufficient. This model follows international trends and has already successfully been put into practice at Ghent University.

“At Ghent University, we aim to meet the increasingly growing call for more demanding types of research with a deployment of available infrastructure and expertise which is as efficient as possible,” says Prof. Ignace Lemahieu, director of the Research Department. He specifies that “collaborations between our different laboratories, departments and faculties lies at the very heart of Ghent University. But, by structurally recognising and supporting Core Facilities, Ghent University wants to offer researchers the incentive to go one step further and use the available research infrastructure in a manner that is even more professional.”

Professor Ignace LemahieuNecessity

“The need for professionalisation has become apparent in many ways,” Lemahieu continues. “One of which is the inefficient usage of available resources. Research groups sometimes purchase a piece of equipment due to not or not sufficiently being aware of what is already available in other groups. If the usage levels of both pieces of equipment are then examined, one often has to conclude that the maintenance costs alone are difficult to justify.”

“We want to make researchers more aware of the costs connected to the specialised infrastructure they utilise in their research. There are the maintenance costs I mentioned before, but also the purchase itself, the goods needed to run the infrastructure, the wages of the frequently specialist staff necessary to run the infrastructure and the remaining overhead costs. Besides this, you also have to take into account that we are a university situated in an old city, real estate is expensive and difficult to come by. This creates an added necessity to optimally use the space we have at hand.”

He smiles and says “to be clear: I don’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers. It goes without saying that all research groups at Ghent University manage the resources at their disposal responsibly. But sometimes you have to challenge yourself to look at the bigger picture. The purchasing policy of a research group is geared towards the needs of that group itself; it usually doesn’t take into account the broader context – and the opportunities to be found there in terms of cooperation.”

Facilitating cooperation also requires a focus on communication. “Imagine what we would be capable of if all researchers, both Ghent University members and others, would be fully aware of everything our University has to offer? I often hear about young researchers not finding their way to the resources they need for their research, simply because they don’t know what’s available to them. And, at the same time, there are research groups that look for solutions outside of Ghent University for things that could just as easily and cheaply be done internally!”

Rector Rik Van de Walle agrees with Lemahieu wholeheartedly and adds that "this is not a story about financial discipline, but rather one about creating new opportunities. Efficient handling of resources and focusing on open communications will allow us to realise more: more research and more knowledge sharing; more expertise, state-of-the-art infrastructure and robust international collaboration. Core Facilities are the way to grow Ghent University’s standing and reputation in the research community. So it's only natural that Ghent University offers the support needed to set up and consolidate these types of collaboration."

No man is an islandMarthe DE BOEVRE.PNG

The Center of Excellence in Mycotoxicology and Public Health (CEMPH) at Ghent University was recently awarded the prestigious ERC Starting Grant. Prof. Marthe De Boevre of the CEMPH explains the role Core Facilities played in the process: “the CEMPH’s collaboration with the Core Facilities at Ghent University were a deciding factor in the grant assessment process. The availability and easy access to a wide range of different types of research infrastructure was viewed as a major plus, which definitely helped our grant application. In Europe, it’s the first time mycotoxicological research has been financed at this level!”

De Boevre explains that the multi-disciplinary approach which is center to Core Facilities should be viewed in the scope of broader open research culture that is both old and new. “In a sense, Core Facilities have been part of Ghent University for 20 years, they just hadn’t been named that yet. There have been so many beautiful collaborations between researchers who believed in the multidisciplinary approach during the course of the last decades, with some splendid results. But these collaborations were usually based on informal networks and contacts between researchers. Official recognition and support by Ghent University in the form of ‘Core Facilities’ is an important, new step in a process that has been going on for much longer.”

“In contemporary research, no man is an island. There’s nothing be gained from that way of thinking. A narrow focus on the prestige of the individual researcher or research group, at the cost of others, is rapidly becoming an obsolete practice. The logic behind it inextricably leads to poor communication and isolationism, while the scientific community is evolving in exactly the opposite direction.” (prof. Marthe De Boevre, CEMPH)

Recognition

In April 2021, the Ghent University Board of Directors approved the recognition procedure for Core Facilities at Ghent University. Director Lemahieu explains that a number of things have already been decided. “Recognition as a Core Facility means that the BOF (Special Research Fund) will support the foundation of a Core Facility with a yearly grant of €50.000, for the duration of 3 years, with the possibility of a one-time extension. The multi-annual budget has funding for a maximum of about 27 possible new Core Facilities.”

When he is asked whether there will be any obligations tied to the recognition, Lemahieu emphatically states that “of course, the recognition application is entirely voluntary and it is open to everyone. Besides this, recognition and the financial support that it brings, will be granted on the basis of the strength of the application. The Research Department is, right now, reviewing the specific modalities of the recognition procedure. More info and further invitations will follow at the start of the 21’ – 22’ academic year.”

Are you interested in Core Facilities and would you like to find out more? Please contact Esther De Smet of the Research Department (esther.desmet@ugent.be).