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How Good Is Your Core Lab?

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It’s no secret that scientists tend to gripe about their core labs, and core lab members are just as likely to grouse about their users. But the fact remains that core facilities are kept in service — and many new ones are opening — in academic and government institutions as well as in pharma/biotech settings. So how much of the griping is just scientist sport?

In September, Genome Technology sent a survey out to readers to find out what scientists really think of their core labs, and to see if core lab researchers’ views matched up with those of their users. Of the 786 people who responded, roughly one-fourth identified themselves as scientists who worked at a core facility. Users who send work to cores were most likely to do so for DNA sequencing, microarrays, or mass spectrometry experiments.

The upshot was clear: scientists really do like their core labs. Across the board, in all types of organizations, most users ranked their cores “good” or “excellent” for everything from ease of use to accuracy of results to personal attention. And given the choice to change their current use of core labs, more than 80 percent of user respondents said they would use their core facility as much or more than they currently do. That makes sense to Chris Cheadle, who directs a genomics core at Johns Hopkins University. “All things considered, people prefer to go in-house because of the relationships that are built,” he says.

Core lab scientists told us that of all the improvements they could make to their facilities, their highest priority would be for newer technologies. That matches up with the users, who were least happy about the range of services or tools offered by their cores. Where they didn’t see eye to eye: users were more likely to be unhappy with costs at their core lab, while core lab scientists indicated that cost was not a priority in serving their customers.

Funding and technology acquisition represent two of the biggest challenges facing core facilities today, says George Grills, director of core facilities at Cornell University. Bringing in new tools means not only figuring out how to pay for them — shared instrumentation grants from NIH or NSF and supplemental grants from teams of investigators are two common means — but also which technology is going to best serve the user community. “Core labs have a choice of either being at the cutting edge of technology, where they have to be willing to stand some pain … or [being] conventional users of the technology, where the most important thing is being able to generate high-quality data as fast as possible,” Grills says.

Grills says that in the past few years, cores and their users have benefited from “more use of Web-based interfaces” (27 percent of users report that their entire interaction with the core takes place online) as well as cross-platform studies that provide clear metrics and “allow core facilities to evaluate how well they’re doing.” Those trends could explain one result from the GT survey: about three-fourths of core lab respondents reported getting more work in the past year than they did in the year before.

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