Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Think of all those orphaned instruments

I was refereeing a paper last week that got me thinking. The paper was largely devoted to a new measuring technique, (rheologically based of course) that I won't detail here,since as you will see, the details are not important. The researchers had put a lot of work into making this technique better than what was out there, able to function at lower concentrations, smaller sample sizes...all the characteristics that you would like. And the final product worked well on the variety of samples that they tested.

But that was it. They created the instrument, and ran some samples on it. They didn't see anything particularly noteworthy, or surprising or wonderful. That of course is fine, as that is the nature of research. They certainly didn't know what to expect from their samples, so I'm not faulting the researchers for a lack a dazzle in the results. But after seeing these results, it hit me:
What's going to happen now to that wonderful instrument?
I imagine that it might be used for another paper or two, but I somehow can't see that it would ever be commercialized (I just don't think there is the demand for the measurement) or repeated in another lab (certainly not an industrial lab). As far as I know, they research group might be open to testing some samples that others send them (maybe for a fee) but I am not aware of that practice happening on a regular basis. So then I started wondering how many other setups out there are just like that? How many wonderful devices are built 1-time only and never repeated? They end up being scavenged for parts or thrown into the dumpster or worse yet I suppose, packed into a closet or drawer and forgotten about.

I know that was the case for instrumentation I developed for my graduate work, and I know it was the case for many of my schoolmates. If the instrument had found some really surprising results, it might have withstood this challenge, but even that is quite far from certain.

I'm not sure that anything can be done. The instruments are pretty sophisticated, so you couldn't profitably set up a testing company to run them unless there is great demand, and if the demand is there, then it will likely be commercialized anyway. A government-run center would also stand no chance in this day-and-age of tight budgets. So at the end, I don't have any suggestions how to end this routine. Anyone?

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