Guest post: The rise of contractual conservatism – will it subvert sharing of scientific resources?

March 7, 2012 | Posted by Guest in Core facilities |

This is a guest post by Stephen Byers, Director of the Lombardi Shared Resources at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, Georgetown University (full bio below). 

As director of shared resources at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and as Director of the Translation Technologies component of the Georgetown/Howard Univerity CTSA, my goal is to provide our researchers with the highest quality experimental resources, at the best possible price.  Sometimes that means adding in a new technology to our core facilities, sometimes it means reaching out to our CTSA network partners, sometimes it means negotiating with another institution altogether.   One reason I attend the Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities (ABRF) annual conference is to keep up with cutting edge resources and explore what it makes sense for us expand or introduce as part of our core services and when it makes sense for us to find partners.

Different core facilities develop specializations, driven both by foresight as well as serendipity.   Georgetown, for example, has invested in an outstanding Metabolomics Shared Resource Program.  We’re finding that, in many cases, high throughput analysis of metabolites in blood or urine with LC-Mass Spectrometry is as good as genomic profiling at segregating outcomes in diseases… and a whole lot cheaper.  We can generate as many as 20-30,000 metabolite data points in an hour at $60/hr for 6 samples.  The real challenge for this field, as for much of post-genomic science, is the informatics that goes into analyzing all this data.  Under the guidance of our metabolomics gurus, Al Fornace and Amrita Cheema, and Medical Informatics Director Subha Madhavan, we are improving our informatics services and finding no shortage of investigators eager to take advantage of this technology.

We also have a unique core zebrafish facility, less by design than by happenstance. Georgetown invested in a zebrafish program some years ago, when we hired a new investigator who used this increasingly important model organism for her research.  After that investigator left some years later, we decided not to abandon the accumulated equipment and expertise, but to build it into a nationwide facility for doing zebrafish screening on a fee-for-service basis.

By contrast, a few years ago, with our investigators clamoring for NextGen DNA sequencing capabilities, we considered investing the two to three million dollars it would have required to bring next generation sequencing into our core facilities.  Then, we projected the annual costs of operating such a facility at $250,000 per year, balked, and looked into alternatives.  The result was a partnership with a neighboring CTSA institution Children’s National Medical Center that is less expensive than outsourcing to China (in this case, the Beijing Genomics Institute).  We are now one of their largest users.

So, being smart about what to provide and what to seek out is a critical component of shared resource management.  There is, however, a new wrinkle in this already challenging process of technical exchange.  Take for example, the case of one our researchers who used a specific experimental service at another institution.  Until recently, we just asked the institution to send us an invoice for the service and then we cut a check.  Not any more.  Now, we are required by Georgetown to send them a contract first – an extensive legal document containing phrases like “indemnification” that makes a scientist’s heart grow cold at the daunting legalese placed before technological exchange and progress.  Meanwhile, the same administrators that ask us for greater measures to safeguard against somewhat obscure risks (we aren’t, after all dealing with clinical outcomes and patient confidentiality; these are very much translational research services) are also the ones that want us to reduce the costs and excess capacity associated with our own core facilities.

It’s difficult to see a way out of this conundrum.  Blanket contracts for large-scale service providers are one solution that Universities have adopted, but do we really want to see legal contracts going back and forth between every pair of institutions that wish to exchange collaborative services?  Perhaps a third party like Science Exchange can serve as a contractual intermediary, much the way it currently eases purchase order transactions?  We will need to solve this problem somehow, lest we risk a reversal of our traditional priorities by putting risk-aversion ahead of scientific progress.

About the author

Stephen Byers is a Professor and an Associate Director at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, Georgetown University with appointments in the Departments of Oncology and Biochemistry, Molecular and Cellular Biology. Currently he is Director of the Lombardi Shared Resources, Director of the Translational Technologies Component of the Georgetown-Howard Universities Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA), a member of the Tumor Biology and Biochemistry Molecular and Cellular Biology Programs and is on the boards of Adherex Technologies, Sarfez Pharmaceuticals and Science Exchange. His laboratory has three major interests. The first relates to the role of the cadherin/catenin system in carcinogenesis, the second to studies of the anti-cancer actions of vitamins A and D and cancer drug development and the third to interactions among NFkb, TGFb, wnt and vitamin D pathways.

 

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