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People Power – Thinking Differently About Equipment Sharing

When we talk about research and innovation in higher education, rarely is the topic of equipment sharing high on the agenda. Whilst equipment sharing is not a new concept, it is time we started thinking about it differently.

The Midlands is home to some incredible facilities which has played a major role in some pioneering research initiatives. For example, funding of our Energy Research Accelerator has delivered 23 novel energy research and demonstrator facilities including:

  • the Geo-energy Test Bed - a fully instrumented testbed with surface and down-hole sensors to enable the development and testing of monitoring technologies and improves the understanding of the geological shallow subsurface or
  • the Energy Innovation Centre – a world-class facility for battery research supporting test, development and scale-up of battery technologies.

Impressive facilities and research infrastructure are spread right across the Midlands, from the state-of-the-art microscopy systems in several universities, to the special collections many institutions house.

But it’s important to note that it isn’t just the exotic and expensive equipment though that gets shared. Electron microscopy equipment and other facilities which fall within the £50k to £1m range are some of the most popular instruments that are shared because how versatile they are for a wide range of research. But there is so much more to equipment sharing than the apparatus.

People power

Our expert technicians are the people who maintain, repair and teach researchers and students how to use the equipment safely.  On top of this, they are often leaders in their fields, providing advice on sample preparation, performing data analysis and directly contributing to research papers and grant applications. 

Successful equipment sharing is much more than simply providing access. With complicated, unique and niche equipment, it is often about talking to a researcher to understand what they want to find out and then running experiments and providing data analysis.

The technical community plays a critical role in this, they know what questions to ask and - as a result - are ultimately the driving force behind successful shared access. They enable our research and maximise what we can obtain from our infrastructure.

Piloting technician-led equipment sharing

It would seem natural that these technical experts should be the ones who drive our equipment sharing for the sector. However, until now it has often been the role of our academic staff to demonstrate what is available at an institution and encourage sharing of equipment.

Bringing together the equipment, in conjunction with the technical expertise and knowledge, can improve research outcomes and collaborations; something we are piloting in the Midlands currently.

Through TALENT, we have empowered our technical community to actively advertise what facilities and expertise they have available through a Technician Led Equipment Sharing Initiative. Across our eight institutions, 71 facilities have shared details on what they have, who to contact for enquiries and where to find out more in an equipment sharing brochure.

This extra detail and up-to-date contact information offers much more than a standard asset database which allows researchers to contact the technical expert directly for advice.

New research collaborations and creating resilience

We have hosted two highly subscribed equipment sharing calls, where researchers across Midlands Innovation can request funds to sustainably access these facilities via our technical community.

This has led to a diverse range of new research and the case studies and learnings from this project will be shared widely with the sector to encourage best practice.

As a result, the technician community across the Midlands has started to develop an expanding equipment network which supports the wider research taking place across our partner universities.

Technicians can facilitate and signpost researchers to another university which has the best equipment for the job. It also adds resilience to the network and allows research to continue if one piece of equipment is out of use temporarily within a university; our technicians can suggest using the same equipment within the network.

Regular events for technicians like the Higher Education Technicians Summit (HETS)* and Technician Commitment events provide opportunities to network and share best practice around equipment sharing within research and higher education.

Sharing technical insight

The Midlands Innovation TALENT programme is leading a Policy Commission that will highlight the future need for technical talent in higher education and research. Already there are some strong themes emerging around demographics, practice, perception, career pathways and policies thanks to in-depth research within the sector.

The recommendations, which are expected to be published in autumn 2021, will help shape the future role of technicians in higher education and research and play a major role in the economy’s post-pandemic recovery.

It’s likely that technicians’ roles in equipment sharing and shaping new research collaborations will evolve and strengthen the UK’s ambition to become a world-leading science superpower.

Midlands Innovation is a partnership of eight research intensive universities. Aston, Birmingham, Cranfield, Keele, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham, Warwick.

*HETS 2021 is taking place on 10 November 2021 in Nottingham. Register your interest by emailing info@midlandsinnovation.org.uk

Written by 

Dr Helen Turner,
Midlands Innovation 
Ian Hancox, 
Research Technology Engagement Manager
University of Warwick 
Helen Turner crop 637233190290833700 128 Ian Hancox