What is the optimal organizational structure to support top level research?

By Ivan C. Baines
Chief Operating Officer
Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics

Most would agree that the centralization of expensive and sophisticated equipment is an essential part of the organizational structure of biomedical research institutes today. This has come about through the need to remain on top of technologies that take a lot of time to master (e.g. protein expression and purification, advanced imaging, EM, automation, transgenics…), the necessity to enable more complex multidisciplinary work flows across different technologies, the prohibitively expensive technologies with capacity exceeding the needs of single labs or departments (e.g. NGS), and of course the unwelcome need to generally improve cost efficiency in an ever more constrained funding environment. Recognition that equipment must be centralized and shared has resulted in the development of scientific core facilities run by technology experts both in the US and Europe. Because Europe has traditionally had more but smaller grants, and has a tendency to a more socialized approach in the way things are run anyway, Europe has advanced further with optimizing the organizational and operational models of centralized scientific core facilities.

A critical aspect of a successful core facility concept is the appropriate personnel and career structure for core facility staff. We have identified the necessity to have three different staff positions the numbers of each position depending on the nature of the core facility. The cores are headed up by senior staff scientists or “Facility Leaders” who enjoy an unlimited prospect in the institute. These positions will provide continuity of expertise and knowledge and will only be discontinued should the core be closed. The second position is a postdoctoral level scientist who is hired strategically to remain on top of new or evolving technologies. These positions are expected to turn over (e.g. the scientists leave to run their own core) every 5-7 years both to maintain flexibility in the core but also because there is no internal career path since the core leaders will normally stay so there is no promotional opportunity for the scientists within the core. The final position is that of the technical assistants. The relative number of each position depends on the nature of the core (e.g. a vivarium will have more technicians while an advanced imaging facility would have more scientists).

There are many ways of leveraging the centralized core facility structure for further improvements. We operate a recharge system that brings in about Euro 2.5 million revenue of external money per year (we are permitted to ‘sell’ unused capacity) and allows us to have 16 cores instead of only 6-8. We also provide a significant part of our funding package to our group leaders in a budget that can be spent only internally on the cores and provides an extraordinary ability to achieve economy of scale (the major costs converge through the cores) and create synergies throughout the institute. I recently was back in the US to help set up the first Max Planck Institute in the USA in Florida. By a crude comparison at today’s exchange rate, it costs a little more to run the Max Planck Florida Institute with 130 staff members than to run the MPI in Dresden with 450 staff. The major cost difference is that sharing is not yet widespread in the US. The culture is still that a PI gets a certain amount of space and a budget and can do whatsoever they choose within their space so long as they cover it with their own budget. Suggesting that funds should be pooled to pay for centralized equipment does not go down well nor is it possible to stop PIs from customizing their space (which they tend to do very poorly) meaning that the institute is continually paying renovation costs. Clearly whatever model is adopted, the priority must be that it should be conducive to nurturing top level research. Some comparisons of successful infrastructure models in the USA and Europe may provide quite some inspiration.