Issue 78 Contents
DOSSER -- an easy way to find the equipment and help you need
It’s accepted wisdom amongst scientists that Australia does not spend as much as it could on scientific research, at least partly because we have a small population, thus a small tax base, limited venture capital and few large companies that conduct in-house research here.
So to maintain a respectable showing in terms of research output and the associated papers, patents and knowledge that we hope will keep us in touch with a rapidly changing economic and scientific world; we need to make the very best use of what we have.
There are a few obvious elements to this – good forward planning so that all Australian researchers have access to the basic tools of their speciality and new techniques are made available to them quickly; avoiding unnecessary duplication; making sure the expertise and finance for ongoing support is in place.
In addition, there must be a good communication system so that people can find out what is available to them. This seems to me a crucially important part of the mixture, and is surely not one that presents an easier to use Google to search for equipment rather than picking a way through your institution’s own website?
Interested in a small experiment? Spend five minutes trying to find a single website within your institution that tells you completely and exactly what shared scientific instrumentation is available to staff and research students. A simple enough ask, one might think, and yet if you are successful you will be in a very small minority. I tried this for a number of Australian universities a few years ago, and found ONE (Victorian) university that made such information available – and last time I looked even that one wasn’t there anymore! If you are persistent and already have a pretty good idea of what you are looking for you can often winkle out a bit of information, especially if equipment is held in a largish central facility, but it certainly isn’t made easy.
And yet every major university is loaded with equipment that was bought by groups of people who solemnly assured the internal or external funding body that the New Improved SuperWidget would be the instrument of a great new age of cooperation -- cross -disciplinary, interdepartmental, intra and inter-institutional, interstate, international…you name it. There is also a substantial reservoir of equipment that was initially funded for specific projects or areas, but is “owned” by groups that would be quite happy to make it available to others under some conditions.
So what goes wrong? Well, lots of things, obviously, but they are not what this article is about. What matters is that the information – what equipment there is, where it is, the costs of use, how much technical support and/or training is available to prospective users - does become much more easily available.
A few years ago Karen Edwards, from The John Curtin School of Medical Research, and I decided to “just do it” and set up a searchable database. Our first try was simply a website consisting of separate html pages about equipment available in central facilities at the ANU, with links to their websites. It was melded together by a few tables and by the site search function, an excellent free tool provided by Atomz, which we came across on the WISENet webpage!
The second generation, a leap forward, is a proper database: DOSSER. DOSSER was planned with the help of the Research School of Biological Science’s IT & Media group (Dennis Vukoja, Nathan Cattle (successive heads who have been very enthusiastic supporters of the project), Rashid Minhas who did most of the PHP programming and Sharyn Wragg, who did most of the design). Initial funding came from two of the ANU’s shared equipment facilities, the ANU Electron Microscopy Unit, and the John Curtin’s ACRF Biomolecular Resource Facility. The first working version drew contributions from the ANU and from the Australian Microscopy and MicroAnalysis Society. New contributions are welcome and can be negotiated in return for logo placement.
DOSSER is not of course the only equipment database out there, but it has some features which we hope will make it practical enough to become widely used.
Firstly: it is very easy to use, and free. You don’t have to log in, and can immediately search by equipment or service name, category, location, or institution.
Second – it is very easy – and also free – to add new equipment. This is because it is a “distributed” database – people who register their facility manage that part of the process themselves. DOSSER actively searches for broken links and alerts those managers.
Thirdly, it is a very general database – any sort of shared scientific equipment or service can be added. There are no restrictions regarding university, commercial or government entries or use. Detailed entries are usually a combination of information uploaded to DOSSER and links to a facilities’ own website, so that minor details do not have to be changed on the DOSSER site. The new entries are added via a simple HTML editor, so the look of the entry can reflect that of the facility website if desired.
A “sting in the tail” of DOSSER, aimed at making it easier to set up cooperative structures in the first place, is a sub-section, very much a work in progress, aimed at people who don’t have access to an instrument, and are either planning their own bid or are interested in supporting somebody else’s bid. I would be particularly interested in comments or suggestions about this section.
Try it out: http://dosser.anu.edu.au/index.php,
use “browse all” to see what is there (70 items from 16 facilities across 6
institutions in four states), or search on a particular instrument or category.
The “Advanced” search page lets you search by location or other factors. But
simply clicking the “Browse all” button displays a complete list - clicking on
the column title will sort by organisation, category etc.
If you want to add your own equipment, “sign up” as a facility manager and take it from there.
DOSSER is due for a bug fix and suggestions are welcome. Long-term, it would be nice if it were to be taken over by the ARC or some other arm of government which could guarantee its future and hopefully look at its extension. After all, if the NH&MRC or ARC, or a private agency, offer funds on the understanding that many people will benefit, they should be able to ensure that the equipment or service they are supporting is properly advertised!
Any suggestions are welcome.
Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue 78 Contents