The University possesses thousands of pieces of equipment which are not part of the SPbU Research Park resource centres. Even seeing all of this equipment would be a difficult task: the equipment is scattered over numerous premises; it is not always listed on the inventory register; it is not used to its full capacity and often employed inefficiently... The task set is as follows: to create a register of such equipment and regulations for its use that would be convenient for everyone.

 

Background

As lately as last year, V. Alekseev occupied the position of a senior research officer at the SPbU Department of Photonics on the basis of the so-called single work order-contract. The funding of the topic ended on 31 December 2014. When the term of his employment contract expired, V. Alekseev participated in the competition for filling the academic position of an associate professor in the field of Optics. The competitive selection procedure was held at the meeting of the SPbU Academic Council on 22 December 2014. There were two applicants and V. Alekseev did not get the position (see Results of the meeting of the SPbU Academic Council held on 22 December 2014 in the Competition for Academic Positions section of the Internet portal).

On 24 February 2015, V. Alekseev attended a meeting with the Rector in the Rector’s Office and discussed with him the working environment at the Department of Photonics, which, as Alekseev thinks, prevented him from winning the competition for the academic positions. According to him, the discussion of his candidacy by the members of the department had been influenced by “the scientific debate”. Additional experiments were needed to resolve it. The equipment for such experiments is located in the quarters where the members of the department work. But how can one get to it? The problem lies, from V. Alekseev’s point of view, in the lack of precise rules regulating the use of the equipment, which would enable an employee who is not a member of the research team to carry out experiments using the equipment that the research team regards as its own … The Rector replied by offering V. Alekseev to start working on that problem, with the aim of improving the efficiency of equipment utilization: to inspect every floor, laboratory and department and draw up a list specifying what scientific equipment is installed there and how it is used (see 159. Minutes from the Rector’s Meeting with Visitors on 24 February 2015, clause 2). During the conversation, it was decided that equal access to all pieces of equipment for all researchers would be beneficial for many scientists.

Starting from April 15, V. Alekseev has been employed as a leading specialist at the Centre for Support of Research and Educational Programmes in the Fields of Mathematics, Mechanics, Control Processes, Physics and Chemistry. The general goal is to increase the efficiency of use of the equipment that is not part of the resource centres. The first priority is to create an open database containing the information on the field of study that uses a particular piece of equipment, its location, the results and projects achieved with its help, as well as the basic technical specifications of the device and consumables needed for its operation (see 207. Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 25 May 2015, clauses 8 and 7).

 

The orderly pigeonholes

Three months were spent on studying the information concerning different aspects of the task to be performed, the inventory documentation for the equipment scattered around various University quarters in Peterhof, and the development of a unified form for registering the description of the equipment in the future database which would be convenient for users.

Interviewer: So what were your findings?

Alekseev: The equipment which is not part of core facilities (i.e. the SPbU Research Park resource centres), can be divided into several groups. For instance, the division can be based on the date of purchase. The active government support for the renewal of the research equipment stock started less than 10 years ago. This is why we can subdivide the equipment into those units that were made “before” and “after” 2005. Starting from the 1990s and up to approximately 2005, the equipment stock had practically not been renewed, so the “before 2005” group mainly includes the equipment made in Soviet times.

Another point: The equipment manufactured more than 25 years ago is sometimes not listed in the inventory register because of its retirement due to the expiration of its period of service. Thus, we can identify a group of registered and unregistered equipment (the latter group should also include the equipment that was purchased later but was never registered).

According to the character of its current use, the equipment can be divided into essential, auxiliary and unused equipment. Essential equipment is used in current research; auxiliary equipment is on stand-by for replacing the essential equipment if it breaks; the unused group includes the equipment that is not planned to be used in the immediate future. This criterion is very important: when we establish the necessary rules for equipment utilization, it will become possible to make arrangements for the use of instruments and devices by both individual scientists and various research teams.

There is another important criterion: according to the range of use, the equipment can be divided into equipment of wide and narrow application. There are power supplies, vacuum pumps, spectrometers; they can be used by scientists from various fields of research. Usually research teams include the purchase of vacuum pumps in the amount of the latest grant. However, hundreds of pumps have already been purchased and it may be possible to find a pump with required specifications in the unused equipment group! If we have an exhaustive list of all vacuum pumps we have at the University, it will be possible to make the necessary arrangements for their use. So a scientist will be able to use (after finding the device in the list of equipment) an available pump for his/her next experiment and save hundreds of thousands of roubles.

I would like to say a few words separately about the equipment integrated into an experimental research apparatus or setup, which implies coordinated and interdependent use of multiple devices and instruments for achieving scientific result. Such research apparatuses can be divided into the automated (according to the Government Standard, hardware and software complexes for automated recording and processing of experimental measurement results) and manual equipment. Alongside the devices that constitute dedicated (rack-mounted) parts of the experimental apparatus, it may also include the equipment used by individual scientists or research teams for sample preparation, analysis of results obtained using the apparatus, and maintaining the apparatus in good working order.

 

On the road to the database

Interviewer: Is the old equipment really operational and should it at all be listed on the inventory registry today?

Alekseev: In the last 10–15 years, computer performance has increased dramatically, since the computers are developing very fast. During the same time, power supplies used in computers have not changed much. Experimental research uses various kinds of power supplies. There are literally hundreds of power supplies listed in inventory registers! And a lot of money was used for their purchase! There are also other, relatively simple, “technologically established” instruments and devices which were manufactured several dozen years ago but are still used by the scientists (for instance, fore vacuum pumps already mentioned above, instrumentation, monochromators and other kinds of equipment used in spectroscopic studies, etc.).

Division into groups, however, is just a preliminary stage. In the course of investigation it turned out that the majority of scientific instruments did not have the required documentation! There are no descriptions of their technical specifications or conditions of use. So the researchers are not able to fully use these instruments.

In order to create an extensive database of all the equipment which is not part of the SPbU Research Park resource centres, we need a complete description of every instrument or apparatus. There is a lot to be done in this respect… For instance, buildings 1 and 3 on Akademika V.A. Foka Street alone have inventory registers listing about 10,000 units of equipment on the balance sheet of the University. On one hand, these lists include not only research instruments but also tables, bookcases, chairs, etc. On the other hand, there is a lot of equipment which is not registered in the inventory lists. For example, the equipment that I used to work on and which is located in the quarters housing the Department of Photonics and its staff, only 3 instruments currently have inventory numbers, while other instruments are not registered anywhere (and, by the way, only one of those three registered instruments is correctly named in the inventory list). I doubt that this situation is an exception …

 

What about results?

Interviewer: So what are your estimates: how efficiently is the University equipment used?

Alekseev: As we know, a number of formal indicators are used to evaluate the efficiency of research work carried out at an organization, including the number of publications, their summary rating, the number of research projects performed, and some others. The ranking of an organization is composed of the performance of individual scientists and research teams, so the number of publications is the main indicator showing the efficiency of research equipment use.

In order to assess the efficiency of equipment utilization in the core facilities, such parameter as equipment utilization rate is used. At the University this rate is high: the equipment installed at the Research Park works up to 16 hours per day. The “conveyor-belt” efficiency of equipment utilization at the resource centres, though, was envisaged right from the start. On the other hand, it is quite normal and even natural for experimental research carried out by individual scientists and separate research teams to have pauses in the use of equipment connected with the need to analyse the information obtained, to write reports and projects, to take part in conferences, etc.              A new unified database of the University equipment will help to set up a more efficient schedule of its use.

Besides, depending on a particular area of research, the experiment itself and the analysis of the result obtained may differ significantly in their time input. Here we can identify the following two extreme cases:

  • The research requires daily utilization of equipment during a long period of time (several months). Figuratively speaking, the result of the experiment is a single dot on a diagram, so the experiment needs to be repeated many times for different target parameters which influence the process under investigation. For instance, the study of interaction between substances (in particular, chemical reactions) usually includes time-consuming measurements of the concentration and temperate dependence, while the measurements have to be repeated several times in order to check the reliability of results in terms of their repeatability. It would be typical for researchers working on a task of this kind to perform the analysis of the results and prepare their publication simultaneously with carrying out the lengthy experimental work.
  • The research requires only a short-term experiment; the experiment, however, results in a significant amount of data, which requires time-consuming processing and interpretation. For instance, this is typical of high-resolution gas-phase spectroscopy. Some spectrums may consist of hundreds and even thousands of spectral lines. Preparation and actual experiment take the total of a few days, while the assignment of spectral lines and construction of a physical model explaining the arrangement of lines and the relative line strength may take several months (and sometimes even years).

Studies corresponding to the cases described above can actually lead to a similar number of publications during a particular period of time, while the equipment utilization rate for them would be quite different.

 

Improving the efficiency

Interviewer: After exploring the situation, can you suggest any measures that would help to improve the efficiency of equipment utilization?

Alekseev: Creation of an information resource containing detailed data on the equipment and the results of its use will help to clarify the overall picture of experimental research carried out on the equipment outside the framework of the resource centres. The consolidation of the information and a further consultation with the scientific community can lead to concrete proposals for improving the efficiency of equipment utilization. It is clear that if the use of equipment is low, this is not good, and we should find a format for equipment utilization by other research teams. We need an efficient schedule for equipment use, and its development should become a topic of an extensive public discussion.

Another important aspect ─ access to the equipment for external users, who should be able carry out their research on the equipment that is not part of the Research Park resource centres. In order to attract external users for conducting research at SPbU, we should inform our potential partners about the equipment available and the rules of its use. The websites of research groups and laboratory teams to a certain degree fulfil this task. The information from these sources, however, is not structured, which makes the search difficult, even though partnership offers are usually welcome. If we succeed in establishing rules that are convenient for everyone and publish the information about them in cyberspace, we can expect the increase in the number of joint projects with external scientist and joint publications.

In the course of my work I have already met with suggestions to “transfer” some types of equipment to the Research Park. This is understandable. Under certain circumstances, such “transfer” of the equipment to the SPbU Research Park resource centres can also contribute to the increased efficiency of its use.

The work on the establishing of the database will of course lead to a lot of questions. Updating the information on all the instruments will require time.... I think that the important thing is the spirit of cooperation between the administration and the academic staff. We have, of course, the same goal ─ to increase the efficiency of equipment utilization, to save considerable funds and to improve the effectiveness of research. This is in the interests of many scientists. We have an opportunity to create the environment in which the equipment that had been unused or idle will work more efficiently. I am sure that when the project is finished, we will get a useful and interesting information resource as well as convenient schedules (rules) for using the equipment that does not belong to the SPbU Research Park resource centres.

 

Evgeny GOLUBEV