Articles Perspectives

Shared Research Instrumentation Facilities – A Way Forward for India

Overview 

‘Sharing is caring’ is an age-old saying and it’s not just true for social behavior but also for science. To prove any hypothesis in science, we need evidence, and evidence is generated from experiments. Most experiments need access to infrastructural resources, such as computing facilities, supercomputers, databases, biobanks, analytical instruments, etc. Research Infrastructure is an important vertical of modern science. Research Infrastructure provides scientists the tool to take their research forward by providing the required evidence. For computational research the high-end computing facilities, supercomputers, etc. are the tools to accomplish the study. For experimental scientists, it’s the sophisticated laboratory and instrumental facilities to carry out experiments and analyse the results. Such research facilities, both computational and experimental, need dedicated buildings with high-end instruments and trained manpower to run. Most such instruments usually are very expensive and the cost of maintenance is also high. In India, only a few selected premier institutes (such as IITs, IISc, IISERs), public R&D labs ( CSIR labs like NCL, Pune), and R&D units of big industries (Biocon, Aurigene, etc. from the Pharma sector) can afford to establish such instrumentation facilities as per their research requirements. Whereas, the majority of other academic institutions, R&D labs, and R&D units of MSMEs and start-ups suffer considerably in the innovation front, due to the lack of proper infrastructure. Generating new and innovative ideas is not the constraint in innovations rather the facilities to take ideas forward is the bottleneck. Therefore we must build high-end research infrastructure and develop a sharing mechanism to facilitate the participation of all the stakeholders in the innovation paradigm. Two such initiatives from the Government of India-SATHI and I-STEM are described here. It should also be noted that we need more shared resource facilities dedicated towards the specialised need of the research community. We must be up to date with the technological advancements in the instrumentation facilities, and the upcoming science technology policy 2020 can play an important role in capacity building and governance mechanics of shared research facilities.

Advantages of Shared Research Facilities

Research at the R&D units of MSME sectors, start-ups, and tier-II academic institutes suffers due to the lack of access to high-end research infrastructure. Building such research facilities needs substantial investment and recurring maintenance. The availability of shared facilities under one roof increases the translation of basic research to products and also helps in reducing the cost of research. Besides, with reduced dependency on foreign resources or waiting time for nationally available resources, innovation comes at a faster pace. Resource sharing also fosters a strong culture of collaboration between institutions and across disciplines and ultimately enables the researchers to engage in path-breaking research. Moreover, trained operators are engaged in handling such facilities, which in turn increases the lifetime of machines due to proper maintenance.

On the international front we are aware of such shared research facilities, one such much talked about shared mega science project is the particle accelerator facility by CERN. Researchers from the partnering countries (India is an associate member state) are continuously working on expanding the boundaries of human knowledge to know what the universe is made of and how it works using a unique range of particle accelerators at CERN. The other notable international megaprojects are, the International Nuclear Fusion Research and Engineering Megaproject,(ITER), Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research in Europe (FAIR), etc. where India is partnering with other countries. ITER aims towards an unlimited energy future for the entire world. FAIR is an international accelerator facility under construction with primary applications in condensed matter physics, biology and biomedical science. These projects are aimed at developing futuristic technologies to either enrich the knowledge base or solving problems like energy, human health, etc. Such megaprojects are built based on the principles of shared resources, and we benefit immensely in terms of knowledge and capacity building in various fields of science.

We need many such shared research facilities across various disciplines of science within India as well. The initiatives, SATHI and I-STEM, described here the two such shared research facilities, to help scientists to carry on with their researchers, promoted by The Department of Science and Technology (DST) and office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Govt. of India.

Shared S&T Infrastructures in India 

Research in many scientific disciplines is a costly affair. Therefore we must look for ways to efficiently manage different aspects of research. As it has been discussed already, the problem of access to research infrastructure can be solved by building shared facilities. Since the developing cost of such infrastructure is substantially high, government intervention is needed. With this vision of building a shared infrastructure, the government of India is leading two prominent initiatives for academic institutions, R&D labs, R&D units of MSMEs. This article is dedicated to enlightening the stakeholders about the available opportunities to pursue their research forward with adequate support for computing facilities  along with experimental and analytical follow-up of their R&D activities. 

Sophisticated Analytical & Technical Help Institute-SATHI

This scheme aims to provide S&T infrastructural support to academia, start-ups, manufacturing units, industries, and R&D Labs. SATHI centers are envisioned as an infrastructural hub equipped with major instruments and advanced manufacturing facilities, which is usually not available at Institutes / Organisations. Each SATHI center is managed by professionally trained personnel . The goal of SATHI is to extend the required S&T infrastructural facilities under one roof in an efficient manner and with an open access policy. SATHI centers will ensure accessibility and transparency while catering to the demands of industry, start-ups, and academia. Three such centres have been set up at IIT Kharagpur, IIT Delhi and BHU with a total cost of Rs 375 Cr. These centres are equipped with instruments like, High Resolution Accurate Mass Spectrometer System, high end microscopes, etc. There is a plan to set-up five SATHI Centres every year for the next four years to expand the availability of  high end R&D infrastructure across the country. 

Aims & Objectives of SATHI: As described by DST, the aims and objectives of SATHI can be summarised as, providing access to high end instruments essential for follow up of experimental research activities and training of operators to build human resources in an efficient and transparent manar. SATHI centers are available to any researcher, from universities, national laboratories, start-ups, manufacturing and engineering industries, SME’s, R&D Labs, incubators, etc.

Indian Science Technology and Engineering facilities Map-(I-STEM)

I-STEM is an initiative by the Office of Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, to join researchers across the country with the available resources. It is an R&D facility map for Indian researchers which provides information about the availability and operational status of facilities located across the country. More than 400 organizations are connected and 18000 equipment are listed under I-STEM. The goal of I-STEM is to provide easy and equitable access to research facilities generated from public funds to the researchers who do not have access to sophisticated instrumental facilities to carry on with their research. I-STEM also fosters the culture of collaboration and the optimal use of expensive sophisticated instruments. 

Similarities and Differences between the two resource sharing systems

SATHI and I-STEM, both have the similar aims of making instrumentation facilities available for the researchers who do not have access to such facilities. However the approaches are different and they complement each other. The aim of SATHI is to establish new instrumentation facility centres across the country so that researchers can easily carry on their research after visiting the centres after prior booking. Whereas I-STEM does not establish new facilities, rather list down the already existing facilities, a transparent and equitable booking mechanism to make available the instruments. Therefore, I-STEM helps in utilising the existing infrastructure in an efficient manner, whereas SATHI aims to fill the gaps by creating new facilities. In both ways researchers will be able to access sophisticated instrumental facilities at a reasonable cost and without the hassle of traveling a long distance or sending samples to instrumental facilities. 

Challenges

The importance of shared research facilities is well understood by now, but we still have a long way to go in making this concept a functional reality. The numbers of existing facilities are not adequate to cater the needs of the whole scientific community. Therefore the waiting time is too long. Moreover, the distance of the nearest facilities may still be a few 100 KMs away, making it difficult for researchers to access them. Institutional support and financial aids for researchers are also inadequate at this point. Additionally, under many circumstances, sample-analysis must be done immediately after performing the experiments, shared instrumental facilities situated far from the research’s lab, won’t be helpful in such cases. Another challenge is the availability of professionals who are trained to handle such sophisticated instruments.  In addition,  there must be a roadmap for a proper governance structure which will account for the  maintenance and financial needs and overall well being of the facilities. 

Way Forward

The advantages of shared instrumental facilities are unquestionable. Considering the importance of knowledge and resource sharing, the upcoming STIP 2020 gives considerable importance to this topic, which was missing in the earlier STI policies. The STIP 2020 policy mandates must aim for creating more shared research facilities, like SATHI and I-STEM, so that every researcher situated at the nooks and corners of the country, must be able to avail them. The booking system must be transparent and cost should also be in a reasonable range, so that star-ups, small businesses, and  individual researchers can easily arrange them from their grants. We also need to focus on human resource development who are trained to operate such instruments. The upcoming Science and Technology Policy (STIP2020) can play an important role in capacity building and the creation of the governance mechanisms for shared infrastructures. 

About the author

Moumita Koley

Moumita Koley

Moumita holds Ph.D in organic chemistry from The Vienna University of Technology. She has post doctoral experiences in the field of C-H Activation and metal & enzyme catalysed reactions. During her research career as experimental chemist, she developed a strong connection for the philosophy of open science. Her research interest includes different dimensions of open science, such open access, open research data, research resource sharing, research evaluation and citizen science. Currently she is a postdoctoral fellow at DST-CPR, IISc.

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