The art of sharing science

20 March 2019
Some Americans shiver when they hear the word ‘socialism’. The Cold War era has left a lasting mark on this country’s view of economics. B​ut don’t worry, I won’t be talking about the health care system, the lack of paid parental leave, the tiny number of holidays, or any other issue that blows my European mind. No, I will be talking about how this fear of sharing also seems to have infiltrated academia in the US, and as a case study, I will be discussing core facilities.

When it comes to cores, you are spoiled at VIB. During my VIB years, I had the chance to interact with excellent staff at several of the cores and expertise centers. These people helped take my research to new heights and gave me access to technological know-how that would have been otherwise impossible.

From dreams to unexpected setbacks
Moving to Stanford, I expected nothing less. I came here dreaming of the amazing expertise and technology that would be available. It may come as a surprise, but I must say that, regarding cores, it was a very sobering experience. Being familiar with the cores in Ghent and Leuven, the facilities available to me at Stanford indeed often felt a bit outdated. While the staff was friendly and helpful, nothing out of the ordinary seemed possible. Even more, the state-of-the-art equipment that I had always seen at VIB was absent here. If anything, I expected the US to be a step forward, or at least a status quo environment – not a step back. While there are many top mass spec and microscopy researchers in the US, this expertise often does not trickle down to the universities’ core facilities.

When resources are shared, everybode benefits
The core facility model democratizes access to cutting-edge research, and keeping them up to date requires money – lots of it. In essence, this is an idea that parallels our European social welfare system.​ Just as tax money is used to fund healthcare for all, in this case, grants may be smaller in number or lower in amount. However, that residual money is being used to allow everyone at the institute to access a core facility
at deeply discounted pricing. While this does not really help wealthy labs that would be able to afford the equipment themselves, the ‘middle-class’ labs strongly benefit from this system.​

I don’t have access to official numbers on differences in funding between American and European institutes, but after talking to core facility personnel, users and colleagues, I can only confirm the stark difference in luxury between VIB and my current institute. Whether this difference truly stems from a discrepancy in the funding of cores between the two continents is something to investigate, but the observation that one of the richest universities in the US (top 5) has outdated cores compared to a research institute in one of Europe’s smaller countries begs a sensible explanation.

Outsourcing analysis from the US to Belgium
Over the past year, I have been presenting mass spec and electron microscopy data to my lab and numerous collaborators. Each time I do so, people are surprised by the quality of these data, and they immediately ask where I had these experiments analyzed. Unfailingly, they are amazed to discover that my answer is, “An amazing core facility at my previous institute”, and I often have to explain that, “Yes, I am sending all my samples on dry ice across the Atlantic for analysis.”

On one of my recent trips to Belgium, I heard a VIB core recently received an e-mail from someone at Stanford who was interested in sending samples over for analysis. 

Go back to the overview : 'Your Research, Our Technology'

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Steven Boeynaems is a VIB alumnus who worked at the Kevin Verstrepen Lab and the Ludo Van Den Bosch Lab. Recently he traded Belgium for the Californian sun. At Stanford University he keeps pursuing his passion for science and science communication.

Instagram: @steven.boeynaems
Twitter: @BoeynaemsSteven