Sharing research equipment boosts industry in the north

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lab and scientists
The N8 Research Partnership has improved and updated its equipment-sharing database. Nick Goldspink, interim co-director at N8, explains how the database’s improvements will give a huge boost to academics and to Northern industry, saving money, boosting efficiency and aiding research.

There has been a drive in recent years to ensure that university equipment, which is often financed through the public purse, is used as effectively and efficiently as possible. The N8 Research Partnership has contributed to the debate through the publication of reports such as Sharing for Excellence and Growth.  In this report, Professor Luke Georghiou, vice-president for research and innovation at the University of Manchester, described the main barriers to equipment sharing. One of those identified was simply “discovery” – the ability of researchers, both in the HE sector and industry, to find a particular piece of equipment.

In response to this need the HE sector developed solutions through equipment inventory databases, which in many cases were aggregated (through websites such as the N8 Equipment Database) initially, on a regional level and also on a national level through equipment.data.ac.uk.

Technical challenges overcome

These databases were outward-facing tools to allow researchers from all sectors to identify equipment that they may want to use and to provide basic data to support their engagement with the universities. There were some not insignificant technical challenges to overcome, for example the differing enterprise software that universities use. However using an open data standard resulted in broadly comparable (and compatible) data being made available.

The equipment databases have seen varying levels of usefulness. Research offices, for example, are significant users, ensuring that equipment included as part of a grant submission isn’t already available elsewhere in the university or locally.

But the sheer scale of the number of items of equipment on the different systems is challenging for individual users. How can you be sure if any single nuclear magnetic resonance instrument is the right field strength, with the right probes, at any given institution, and that it will be available for use, with or without technical or analytical support?

Adding services adds value

N8 Research Partnership’s Equipment Database was updated partially to bring the website up to modern standards but also to allow the addition of a section on facilities.

By adding this tab, which features suites of equipment, we are highlighting externally-facing services that offer, in addition to access to their equipment, collaborative expertise and analysis. By including an “intellectual offering” and drawing attention to the skills and services that a facility can offer, we aim to provide a more relevant solution-based service to complement the technology-based offering that the equipment listing provides.

For the future, N8 Research Partnership, looks to work closely with Jisc, (which is developing the national database,) ultimately to harmonise the differing equipment databases into a single national capability. This will have enhanced functionality, ensuring that universities’ assets can be used as effectively as possible by a wide and varied research base.

The N8 database is updated on a daily basis and is also freely open to anyone to search, including researchers, research managers, funding bodies and policy makers.

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Nick Goldspink
Project development manager, N8 Research Partnership

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