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Database Promotes Sharing, Cost-Saving at NIH

By Rich McManus

When Ivo "Buddy" Wortman needed a large, 3-level gel dryer for the NCI laboratory in which he is a biologist, he could have hit up the company credit card for the $12,000 that a new machine costs. But instead, the 15-year veteran lab technician consulted the Shared Resources Database, an online trove of lab and office equipment ranging from glassware to computers that has been operated since 1997 by the Office of Research Services. There Wortman found not only exactly what he needed, but also a model that was a year newer than the one he had been using. By simply notifying his administrative officer, who filled out the paperwork to complete the property transfer, Wortman soon had what his lab needed, at no charge.

"These dryers have three expensive pumps," Wortman explained, "and ours was limping along. All three pumps needed work, which would have been very expensive to repair. And we couldn't do without it in the lab [in NCI's Urological Oncology Branch]." He found the replacement, he said, "simply by looking for it." He discovered the Shared Resources Database (SRD) online (at, and one of its several links pointed him to the NIH surplus property warehouse in Gaithersburg. There he found the dryer he needed.

Wortman, a self-described "long-time lab geek," worries that not enough intramural researchers and technicians at NIH know about the SRD. If more knew about it, he said, and posted their surplus equipment there, the site could help more people, speed the progress of research, and save the government money.

Jada Roberts, an information technology specialist in ORS's Information Technology Branch, has run the Shared Resources Database since 1997.

"There's not yet a critical mass of users," Wortman said. "Only a few pack rats like me use it. But Joe Scientist can use the SRD to find the widget he needs. I think that if we make Joe and Jane Scientist more aware that this site exists, they are more likely to use it before they just send that big incubator to surplus, where it will not languish long before being donated or sold, essentially for scrap.

"As budgets actually get cut around here," Wortman continued, "I think Joe and Jane Scientist will be more inclined to look to the SRD if only he or she knows it's there. We would all be better stewards of the funds with which we're entrusted if we did so."

When NIH enjoyed the 5-year period during which its budget doubled, the SRD fell into relative disuse, said Dr. Michael Lenardo, an NIAID scientist who actually launched SRD — with the blessing of NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman — in the mid-1990's. Back then it was known as the Research Materials Exchange, and was essentially a computer bulletin board, accessible via the old Gopher computer system.

Lenardo, who is chief of the molecular development section in NIAID's Laboratory of Immunology, consulted for about a year on the precursor to SRD, posting the availability of lab equipment, managing the bulletin board and occasionally claiming items off of it. But when SRD became accessible via the web, he ended his consulting role with the project. "Self-use was always the goal for the site," he said. "That was the initial concept, really. It was supposed to be a free, open space for swapping equipment."

He had envisioned SRD as a sort of limbo for lab stuff before it hastened into surplus. "It's very tough to reclaim material from surplus," he noted. "The SRD kind of took advantage of that period before the equipment was officially put out to pasture."

The initial effort he began with Gottesman succeeded largely because "NIH budgets were tighter then — there was a need for more efficient use of resources. Then during the doubling period, there wasn't much interest. Now, the site might be more useful again."

Today, the Shared Resources Database is managed by Jada Roberts, an information technology specialist in ORS's Information Technology Branch who has run the program "since 1997, when it first went live [on the web]." SRD's purpose is twofold, she said: "First, it's for sharing equipment that's available. Second, it includes a link to the surplus property data file, which is downloaded daily from CIT."

On a recent March morning, the site included only four items, but inventory fluctuates monthly, according to Roberts. Typically it includes "anything you might find in a lab — some of which I can't even pronounce — as well as computer equipment," she said. "But it's for equipment only — no animals."

The most common item available on SRD is glassware, she said, usually in bulk quantities such as cases. The largest piece Roberts ever logged on the site was "a Justrite Safety storage cabinet for storing acids and corrosives." The smallest item was a test tube. Once an item attracts interest, it's up to the administrative officer to complete the transaction (involving decaling and "custodial codes"). The physical transfer of items is not SRD's concern.

Lenardo emphasizes that SRD "is also potentially useful for biologicals and lab supplies such as antibodies, tissue culture medium, chemicals, etc. However, the listings should probably include the age of the item and expected shelf life as well as recommended storage conditions. For example, NaCl has a shelf life of forever, but certain biological preps might go bad if improperly stored or if they are just too old."

Users of the SRD site are free to post the availability of material, but they are not permitted to delete items. Roberts cleans out the inventory every 6 months. If items go unclaimed, she emails the owners to check on their status. Many unclaimed materials get shipped to surplus.

"I rely on the people in the intramural programs to alert me when material is no longer available," she said. "Communication is a key factor." There is also a kind of honor code inherent in the system, she said — clients actually have to have what they are advertising.

SRD is not, Roberts emphasizes, limited to intramural NIH. It also serves the extramural community. Roberts said she's starting to see a spate of IT (information technology) equipment offered for sharing, as well as printers.

"Initially, the idea for SRD was more strictly intramural and aimed at scientists to swap things," Roberts said. "But it has grown to include lots of IT equipment, which the scientists use, too. We're starting to see more of that."

She urges potential users of the SRD, regardless of their intramural/extramural status, to consider its virtues: "You can save money, help your fellow researchers and save a trip to Gaithersburg, where surplus is housed. We are hoping to attract more clients. We are ready."

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