A manufacturer in your town wants to capitalize on a new market opportunity to add value to its product, better serve its customers and improve its bottom line. To capture the opportunity, the company needs to add a production line. It will create an engineering design, invest to acquire the equipment, hire new employees and begin production.
Unlike this purposefully over-simplified manufacturer’s experience, scientific researchers don’t have access to capital through loans or investments for new research projects (i.e. “add a new production line”). When scientists see opportunities to advance their field of research, capitalizing on them hinges on their capacity and ability to raise money by writing grants, winning corporate sponsorships and other fundraising means. Many times, their efforts are in vain, and several months pass before hearing back from funding agencies.
In 2020, the National Science Foundation (NSF) received more than 42,000 funding proposals, of which it funded 28 percent. Despite this dismal statistic, researchers find creative ways to press forward. One way, for example, is reverse engineering their experimental design to fit the equipment they already have access to, rather than purchase new equipment. A manufacturer wouldn’t be expected to make a new product with existing equipment if it wasn’t optimal, would they? Like manufacturing, scientific research shares a role in the economic development future of our state. To optimize that role, researchers need access to the tools of their trade, which don’t come cheap.
Now might be a good time to tell you that, while I support STEM-based researchers around the state, my educational training and experience is in business. Recognizing I had much to learn when I joined the Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA) in early 2021, I went on a listening tour for the first couple of months of my new job to simply learn about researchers’ roles — the good, the bad and the ugly. I spent nearly 30 hours on Zoom in one-on-one calls with 59 researchers from ARA’s member universities and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) in Jefferson County.
Armed with better knowledge of a researcher’s process, one of the questions that I asked each of them was, “How do you find out what equipment you can use?” Over and over, I heard answers like “word-of-mouth,” “networking” and “conferences.” I learned that Arkansas researchers may have no idea that a state-of-the-art piece of equipment is available for use in a neighboring Arkansas community, let alone down the hall at their own university.
The story I’m about to tell will reveal my identity as a millennial, but it helps put into perspective this conundrum our state’s researchers face. When I graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2013, I deferred my first job’s start date for a six-week backpacking trip through Western Europe with a friend. Wanting to live in the moment and avoid an expensive international phone bill, I decided to leave my cellphone, and thus the internet, at home in the States. An unfortunate consequence of that decision was the inability to read online restaurant reviews. Instead, we relied on what was physically around us and the concierge at our 10-euro-per-night hostels to find restaurants. We had a less-than-optimal gastronomical experience simply because we didn’t know our options.
In Arkansas’ research community, there is much more at stake than a few bad meals. Despite Arkansas universities spending more than $350 million on research and development (R&D) in 2019, a good portion of our state’s academic investigators likely have been conducting less-than-optimal experiments or operating at a local maximum, because they don’t know about the equipment that this R&D spending helped acquire.
ARA’s newly launched Arkansas Core Facilities Exchange (CFE) is a tool to fill this gap in researchers’ knowledge. It is a central database of sophisticated research instrumentation available for use at ARA’s member institutions — the University of Arkansas, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Arkansas State University — through a special partnership with the state, NCTR and the Arkansas Children’s Research Institute. The research departments of these institutions have collectively listed more than 280 pieces of equipment available for use and categorized them by research topic on the CFE. Additionally, the university chancellors signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) intended to encourage a more robust culture of collaboration on campus and between institutions.
Neither institutions nor researchers can solve complex problems on their own or be the sole engine for knowledge-based economic development in the state. Today’s research requires a density of expertise across scientific disciplines and a broad suite of instruments and machines. Accordingly, ARA envisions the CFE as a “force multiplier” — a tool to promote interactions among investigators that are then nurtured into collaborations. The CFE also stands to improve the quality of research design by matching equipment capabilities with investigator goals. Better quality proposals can enhance grant competitiveness.
Driving more usage toward existing core facilities can generate more revenue and reduce redundancy in capital expenditures. Ultimately, the goal is to accelerate the process of discovery and innovation in Arkansas. Much like manufacturers, our researchers need to tap into the resources at hand to build their competitive edge and add value to the global body of scientific knowledge. As their customers, we should expect it. The CFE is available for public use at ARAlliance.org/core-exchange.
Amy Hopper is Core Facilities Project Manager for the Arkansas Research Alliance.
 The term “force multiplier” adopted from Organizing core facilities as force multipliers: strategies for research universities, Zwick, Michael E., Emory University School of Medicine, Journal of Biomolecular Techniques, Volume 32, Issue 02, July 2021.