Nikon and UCSF parting ways; thoughts on managing core facility funding

Nikon has supported the Nikon Imaging Center at UCSF since its inception in 2006. During that time they have provided both direct financial support as well as providing six microscopes to the center, and then replacing and upgrading those microscopes in 2009/2010. Our relationship with Nikon is now coming to an end; we will retain the microscopes we have and Nikon will provide service on them for some time, but we will not get new hardware, nor we will get financial support after 2017.

(For those of you worried about the future of the NIC; we’ll be fine. Recharge rates will go up, but that will be the only change in the near term.)

Not surprisingly, given this change in affairs, I’ve been thinking a lot about our financial model and I wanted to share some of that thinking here in case it’s useful to someone else who is new at core management.

The finances of the Nikon Imaging Center (NIC) have always been pretty straightforward. About 90% of our operating costs are due to salaries, and these are covered from the contribution from Nikon and from the center recharge. We have no other sources of funding; in particular the university does not provide any operating funds to the NIC. The recharge is the money we collect from charging people to use our microscopes. Rates for internal use of a core facility by federally funded researchers are governed by federal rules (primarily by OMB circular A21, which is not accessible on the White House website currently), and these rules set strict requirements on what can be charged for and what are allowable costs. The NIH has a good overview here.

In particular, a major recharge limitation is that you cannot charge more for a service than it costs you to provide it. This means that you can’t use the recharge mechanism to accumulate funds for equipment upgrades or expansions. The recharge can only be used to cover our direct costs. This means that sources of funding other than recharge must be used to buy new equipment and to upgrade our existing equipment.

Consequently, that Nikon gift money is very valuable to us – it is unrestricted, meaning we can use it to purchase new equipment and upgrade existing equipment. The only other way we can do this is writing internal or external grants to request funds. For most of the time we’ve been supported by Nikon we’ve used that money to pay salaries and keep our costs down. In retrospect, I wish we had banked some of this money to cover upgrades and other expenses we can’t charge to the recharge. For example, this is why we haven’t bought any Prime 95Bs yet – we need to write a grant to do so, and grant opportunities for that kind of upgrade are not that coomon.

This is my advice to anyone running a core facility in the US: guard your unrestricted funds! They are very useful to have.