Drowning in Data--Keeping Your Head Above the Technology Waves

You invested close to a quarter of a million dollars on equipment that could quantitate target gene expression not too long ago. At the time it was a state-of-the-art technology that few could afford and a jewel for your laboratory. It has helped you tremendously with your research, but of late, vendors have been bombarding you with announcements about upcoming newer, more powerful versions with enhanced features. Robotized, they promise to eliminate lengthy preparation processes and save you precious time. You are urged to upgrade, but "do you have to?"

For many publicly funded academic scientists, this is one decision that requires more than just simple accounting. Technological innovations are accelerating at a pace that far exceeds our expectations. As a result, we find ourselves playing catch-up with innovations we couldn't even predict and dealing with equipment that is rendered obsolete long before it wears out. This is an even bigger issue in R&D, where to remain at the cutting edge, each scientist has a compelling need to keep abreast of technological advances.

But clearly, state-of-the-art research demands that we apply sophisticated and often very expensive technologies. For a nation determined to turn to R&D as one of its economy's newest engines of growth, there is little room for compromise. But, as Next Wave Singapore finds out, keeping up with the technologies may be a difficult task for most research laboratories.

Out of 56 respondents to Next Wave's poll of 100 academic scientists nationwide, all agreed with the statement, "It is important to stay in the forefront of technology." However, 27 of them also said that their labs are "not planning to spend on newer versions of existing equipment in the next 1 year." Reasons cited most often were "financial constraints," but seven respondents indicated that such expenditures were "not really necessary." On purchasing new pieces of expensive (greater than SGD$250,000) state-of-the-art equipment, 32 respondents said they have "identified new equipment relevant to their area of research." Twenty-nine "would like to purchase them," but only eight of these 29 are sure that they "have the funds for it." Seventeen respondents admitted, however, that they "can do without the expensive setups" by "making use of common resources" or "outsourcing."

In follow-up interviews, Next Wave Singapore spoke to some of the respondents to get a better understanding of the situation. Chan, an investigator with the Nanyang Technology University, figured that if he upgraded just the main equipment in his lab, more than 60% of his operational research fund would be used up and he would have little left for consumables and staff to carry out his work. "I would rather have someone doing the work for me than have expensive equipment sitting idle," said Chan.

A principal investigator with the National University of Singapore who preferred to remain anonymous lamented that "although public funding on R&D has increased several-fold in the past year, much of the funding is diverted to perceived emerging areas of research excellence like genomic research." The "whopping amount" that goes to the big research centers leaves "little to be shared" among the smaller labs, he said. "State-of-the-art technology is out of question" for the individual investigator. He added with concern that small researchers operating on the edge may be forced to make "difficult choices."

However, Tan, a well-established senior scientist, chose to differ in his opinion. He felt that current allocation of resources is well justified and that the administration is moving in the right direction. "Singapore needs the best technology and research capability at the frontier," he said. "It's a matter of where to plant your resources. ... When it concerns acquisition of technologies amounting to millions of dollars, you must take into account the current and future implications of the research initiative, the viability of the projects it supports, and the needs for continual growth." Duplication of expensive technologies, said Tan, is unnecessary and unwise because it "dilutes the funding efforts."

Indeed, institutional administrations are sparing no effort to optimize critical and expensive high-tech resources. Rather than working independently, though, scientists are encouraged to collaborate or form groups to share expertise and resources. Nationwide, academic and research institutions are pursuing strategic changes to eliminate replication of costly technologies and improve the operational efficiency of existing facilities. Efforts are under way to create more core facilities that provide shared resources with professionally managed services and expertise not otherwise available to individual research laboratories.

Over at the National University Medical Institutes, one of the first institutes to implement core services for researchers, specialized microscopists at the Microscopy Center routinely analyze research samples for researchers using the most sophisticated technologies in confocal microscopy and tissue imaging--technologies few individual investigators could afford. The institute also has cores equipped with the state-of-the-art equipment to provide services such as DNA sequencing, flow cytometry, in situ hybridization, and gene knockout, all at nominal costs to the users.

Core facilities such as these provide multiple advantages. They certainly take a big chunk of the financial burden off the individual investigator, reduce overall staffing needs, and yield cost savings. And they may serve to bring together scientists from widely disparate disciplines, thus providing opportunities for more scientific interactions and collaborations. Most importantly, their existence ensures that all researchers have timely access to the most up-to-date technologies. With the trend in Singapore going more and more toward the provision of core facilities, scientists here will soon need to expend much less energy in their efforts to stay above the technology waves.

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