Troubling yesterdays for building of tomorrow

Editor’s note: Please read ‘Meet some of Biotron’s research superstars’ (Jan. 19), which was published in conjunction with this story.


Norm Huner didn’t want to talk about the challenges facing the Biotron, partly because he wanted the $28.6 million facility to save face. It was hailed as the ‘world’s most advanced facility for environmental change research’; that has yet to materialize three years after its opening.

“Would I do it again? If I did, I would do it differently,” Huner says. “Perhaps it is better to go in naïve. I went into it with the attitude, ‘Just do it and deal with the fallout later.’

“I didn’t think about the crap that came along with this.”

But despite a clumsy series of yesterdays, university administrators and researchers still see a bright tomorrow for the revolutionary facility.

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Spread across four sites – at the University of Guelph, Agriculture Canada in London and two at Western – the Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre (or Biotron, for short) was the first of its kind. It was designed to allow researchers to reconstruct mini-ecosystems to study the impacts of climate change and extreme environments on soils, plants, insects and microorganisms.

It officially opened in September 2008, but in order to understand the challenges facing the Biotron, it is important to go back much further, Huner says.

“It was a learning experience for me,” he says. “The Biotron was probably the one major experience I’ve had at Western that left me totally disillusioned about how this place operates. Scientifically, it functions; it does everything we would expect it to. But it could be so much more. That’s the biggest disappointment.”

Dealing with the administrative side of the Biotron has been the biggest challenge of all, not the science, he says.

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Huner submitted a proposal for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) grant in May 2003. Awarded in March 2004, the $11.3 million represented the core funding of the $28 million project.

While the CFI grant was significant, it carried some conditions that tied the hands of the university on how the money could be spent. For example, CFI does not pay for offices or storage space; it only pays for working scientific space and equipment.

These constraints impacted how the Biotron was designed; in particular, faculty members didn’t have office space in the facility.

At the time, this didn’t seem out of the ordinary, particularly because it was intended as an international facility. Researchers had their own labs and office space outside the Biotron. They would set up labs in the Biotron and then leave once these experiments were completed.

“CFI and the university expected it to be self-funding, which is a virtual impossibility for a basic research facility,” Huner says. “The Biotron wasn’t designed to be a place to make money. It’s a basic research facility focused on climate change.”

The business plan involved Western researchers temporarily using the facility for a fee (for the upkeep of the equipment), and industrial clients paying a premium fee to use the space.

For this business plan to work, it was crucial to have the technical infrastructure in place to support facility users. For example, technicians would be on staff to run experiments for off-site industrial clients. The goal was to have at least one technician for each module, he says.

CFI also provided about $4 million through the Infrastructure Operating Fund (IOF) to support the cost of running the facility for the first five years.

“That IOF funding wasn’t enough to support the basic people we had to have in place – the administrative people, plus these technicians. It simply wasn’t enough money,” Huner says.

Each year, the Biotron research committee lobbied the university for extra funding to support these technical positions, however, they were rejected.

Instead, the Biology and Earth Science departments paid for three technical positions from their budgets.

But Huner says seven additional technicians were needed – or in his words “essential” – to the Biotron in order to fulfill the demands created by the business model.

The cost for the seven technicians, including salary and benefits, amounted to about $700,000 per year, Huner says. Each Biotron researcher kicked in money from research grants to fund much-needed technicians.

“When I think back to all this in the beginning, the university really didn’t think through the commitment, the long-term financial commitment, to a facility such as this,” he says.

However, the university was making a significant contribution to the operational cost of the Biotron by paying for the energy costs to run the facility, which has amounted to more than $3.3 million in operating funds since 2005.

“Western has been tremendously successful with obtaining large-scale, CFI-funded infrastructure over the past 10 years, but there remains a significant gap in funding opportunities available for ongoing operation and maintenance of such facilities, including for specialized technicians,” Dan Sinai, acting associate vice-president (research), acknowledges.

“These are legitimate concerns faced by nearly every CFI-funded facility in Canada and we constantly stress the need for further operational funding to our various funding agencies and members of government,” he continues.

According to Huner, the university argued the IOF funds should have been enough to support these technical positions. This plan does not account for when the funds run out, he says.

As the principal investigator, Huner says he was named the scientific director “by default” because the clock was ticking on getting construction underway in order to get the CFI funds flowing. Huner only wanted to commit 10 years to the project and since he started the process in 1998, he decided to step down from the position of scientific director in 2008.

He remains a researcher in the Biotron’s Plants and Algae Module on the fourth floor of North Campus Building, but handed over the administrative reins to Jeremy McNeil, who had then recently joined Western.

“He had the same problems I had, going around in circles, because we didn’t have the administrative support,” Huner says.

He largely credits McNeil for convincing the university to conduct a review of the facility, which is currently underway.

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As scientific director at the time (2008), Jeremy McNeil suggests the Biotron should have been set up like the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany. In that model, researchers were hired specifically to work in the institute.

Coming on as scientific director in 2008, McNeil found it difficult to find out who made decisions. “Paper trails weren’t there,” he says.

McNeil suggests the Biotron should have been set up like the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany. In that model, researchers were hired specifically to work in the institute.

“They were together with a common goal,” he explains. “Whereas this one, everyone had their own thing going on. … Three years later, by the time it happens, you are not going to stop your life.”

As time moved on, so did the researchers who became involved in other work.

Funding continued to be an issue, but a Biotron-type facility can’t be managed on a shoestring budget, he notes.

One problem was the user fee rates, which were high enough to make people think twice before signing up to use the facility, McNeil says.

Moving forward, fees should be reduced to make it more enticing to researchers and external users, he says.

McNeil stepped down from the position of scientific director when his three-year term ended in August 2011, and echoes the frustrations of his predecessor.

The need for a scientific director, he says, was no longer necessary. The mandate of the position was to review the applications for use of the Biotron. Since there is not an overwhelming number of applicants and with the restructuring of the Biotron, the position was eliminated.

“I found it hellishly frustrating. I would say it was probably the most frustrating thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my entire career,” McNeil says. “There was a lot of potential, but until it worked properly, I wasn’t going to go out and tell people you must use the biomes until we knew we could deliver. It’s unethical and reprehensible.”

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The Biotron Steering Committee, chaired by Faculty of Science Dean Charmaine B. Dean, who started Aug. 1, has oversight of the Biotron.

“The university already manages hundreds of labs and employs thousands of research staff members across campus,” Sinai says. “These are unique and state-of-the-art labs that will continue to benefit the university community for years to come.”

Regardless of the management structure, the Biotron remains a cornerstone of Western’s strategic and established research efforts in environmental sustainability and green energy, he says.

“We expect the facility will continue to be used for groundbreaking research that improves crops, sheds light on climate change and helps us understand complex interactions between air, water and soil,” he continues. “The Biotron provides exciting and tantalizing potential as a tool for our researchers and our students to produce globally significant research with impact.

“I believe this now as I did when we were building it.”

Currently, the plan calls for scientists ‘living’ in the Biotron modules and the modules will become part of the departmental space of Biology and Earth Science. This is based on the operational model used by Huner and his colleagues in the Plants and Algae Module. So rather than hiring technicians for the modules, researchers will occupy the space and run the labs.

The goals for the facility have not changed, “we simply have to adapt to a changing financial landscape and look for alternative sources of funding,” Sinai says.

Former Faculty of Science dean David Wardlaw, now vice-president (academic) at Memorial University, declined comment on the Biotron, citing it “a conflict of interest.”

“As a former dean some of my comments could easily be misconstrued,” he says.

The downside of this shift, Huner notes, is the vision of the Biotron as an international facility. Since the modules will now belong to a faculty member, there may not be space available for international companies to conduct experiments.

“It’s just not going to be the same as our original vision, and that’s OK. It’s evolved,” he says.

A long-term commitment is essential to the Biotron’s success. Even with the new business model, there will be needs for renewing equipment and ensuring staff is available to maintain the equipment.

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While some aspects of the facility have been under-utilized, other areas – including the Insect, Earth Sciences and Imaging modules – have been very active, Sinai adds. The imaging suite is also used extensively by both undergraduate and graduate students, he continues, noting research at the Biotron has resulted in an important upcoming Nature publication.

“As expected, there have been unique challenges in building this state-of-the-art facility, particularly related to the biomes and the Level 3 containment module, which resulted in the project coming in slightly over budget,” he says. “The recruitment of new researchers, like Canada Research Chair Brian Branfireun, will help increase use of the facility.”

However, a laundry list of challenges came during the construction process.

For example, the glass in the biomes was breaking because air pressure levels weren’t set properly. There were also issues with a high use of CO2, which was discovered to be the result of improper connections.

As well, the entire building is a Level 2 containment facility, which presented a real engineering challenge to achieve.

“The most important parts of the Biotron are stuff you’ll never see, it’s in the air handling, the handling of water, all of this stuff,” Huner says. For example, the air pressures are different between the hallways and laboratories.

The ground floor, the Transgenic Plants Module, was designed to be a Level 3 Containment Laboratory for an experiment on a plant virus. This cost a lot of money to be certified and maintained, McNeil says. But by the time the construction of the Biotron was completed, the virus had been downgraded and no longer needed this containment level.

Administration is currently looking for alternative uses for this space.

Another problem was in the sealed biomes on the top of the Biotron (the greenhouse-looking glass construction on the roof), which needed an autoclave to sterilize items. Steam is needed to run the autoclave, but during the construction, the steam line was not installed in the biomes. This was discovered after the construction was completed and the equipment and autoclaves were being moved in.

“How is that possible?” asks Huner.

The question then became who would pay for the mistakes.

“We had a series of those kinds of problems. The disappointment I had was that again, the university and Physical Plant (Facilities Management) took the easiest root – simply charge the Biotron.”

Huner oversaw the budget for equipment, but Facilities Management managed the construction budget.

In hindsight, McNeil says there should have been a project manager or supervisor who is independent of the university overseeing the construction to co-ordinate decisions and offer an impartial perspective.

The Biotron was the biggest single project the university had undertaken at the time. The cost of setting up some of the labs had increased with inflation from the time the estimates were made and when the building was under construction.

In the end, there was about a $200,000 budget overrun, which Huner considers peanuts. But the university turned to the Biotron to cover the excess costs, he says.

“Unfortunately we didn’t have an operating budget. We had a budget to build a building and a budget to buy equipment, and there is an operating fund (IOF) over five years to maintain the Biotron,” McNeil adds.

He expresses concerns about who will fund the repairs of equipment in the Biotron not funded by the CFI grant because the rules stipulate you cannot use CFI funds to repair these items.

This is not to say the Biotron was a failure.

“It has a lot of very fine facilities where people can do outstanding research,” McNeil continues. “It is limited only by the inventiveness of those of us who get to use it and of course, the funds to run the experiments.”

The Insect Module is the most active area and nearly all of the growth chambers are being used regularly.

The Earth Sciences Biome went unused for a long time because it took a while to get them running properly. The goal is to get funding for additional biomes in order to allow for the repetition of experiments.

The Microbiology Module was the slowest to get set up, in part because there were no researchers to work in the facility, McNeil notes. Now, newly hired faculty members will occupy the laboratory space.

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Huner has tried to use the channels available to him, like voicing his concerns to the Faculty of Science dean’s office and university administration, in order to find solutions to the Biotron’s problems. He has also kept the issues relatively quiet in order to preserve the image of the Biotron as a world-class facility.

“The reason there hasn’t been this outcry is we do feel it is a fantastic facility. We don’t want to undermine that,” Huner says, noting biology recently hired two new faculty members who came to Western because of the Biotron. “We don’t want to disillusion these young faculty members. We want them to stay excited.”

In spite of their frustrations and disappointments, Huner and McNeil remain optimistic about the Biotron’s potential.

“The Biotron will give us insight into things we’ve never seen before,” Huner says.

It remains a tremendously exciting facility that has seen major advancements related to the spider mite genome in the Insect Module, ginseng and cancer therapies in the Plant Modules, and very well utilized facilities for soil and imaging research, Sinai notes.

“The Biotron still has the potential to help our researchers make groundbreaking discoveries related to critical issues affecting our environment and climate, and the university continues to use it as a centrepiece for attracting additional researchers, equipment and funding,” he says. “With these successes, we will be able to more accurately say it is one of the world’s most advanced facilities for climate change research.”

“It may not be the great idea it initially was,” McNeil adds, “but we will see some amazing research coming out of it.”