The FreeStuff website is clearly a good idea.

So good it’s in the Savings section of the Cuts, Consolidations, and Savings (CCS) volume of the US FY2013 Budget proposal; so good it ranked 96th out of 3843 entries in the 2011 President’s SAVE Award contest.

So what is FreeStuff?

Built by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), it is an internal “user-friendly website where staff can post, search, and exchange equipment and supplies they no longer need within the intramural research program,” said the CCS.

Simple Elegance

“The nice thing about FreeStuff is that it’s something that didn’t take a lot of engineering, it just took good thoughts by people,” Dr. John J. McGowan, Ph.D., NIAID Deputy Director for Science Management told Breaking Gov. “It is one of the simple things that we’ve done using software that’s already here that you don’t have to pay anything for.”

Faced with the reality of flat budgets, “the concept here (for FreeStuff) was rather than surplus your equipment because either it’s old or there’s something wrong with it, you put it on a website available to others within NIAID and NIH. That way you can give it away essentially to another lab that might need it, or to a lab that doesn’t have money to buy new equipment.”

FreeStuff works like eBay or like an exchange program said Dr. McGowan. Items are open first to those who are just starting labs. After a short time, the rest of NIH can participate. “It’s very simple but it saves money and it makes better use of equipment at NIH.”

This multi-program collaboration will include researchers in the labs, administrative staff, and property management staff who will facilitate the quantification of the cost-saving benefits of the project according to Dr. McGowan.

The ultimate goal is to promote the reuse of resources and reduction in operational expenses so that a higher percentage of resource dollars may be spent directly on research.

FreeStuff is one of the 210 cuts, consolidations, and savings measures proposed by the administration in the 2013 Budget. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimates proposed savings totaling more than $24 billion in 2013 and $520 billion through 2022.

SAVE Award voters were enthusiastic in their opinions on FreeStuff calling it “an excellent way to be more efficient by ensuring limited waste.”

“Facilitating communication about available, existing laboratory property (equipment, supplies, etc.) is a great way to minimize or eliminate the need to purchase new, possibly redundant laboratory property,” commented another SAVE voter.

“This is an excellent way to get the most use from equipment that is useful but not being used. Well done,” added another.

Moving Organizations Forward

Dr. McGowan began his NIH career in 1986 in what is now NIAID’s Division of AIDS (DAIDS). In 1991, Dr. McGowan was appointed director of the NIAID Division of Extramural Activities. Among his numerous honors is the 2002 U.S. Public Health Service Superior Service Award for developing the electronic Research Administration system for NIH.

In his current role leading the NIAID Office of Technology Development (OTD), Dr. McGowan’s job is to provide leadership for scientific, policy, business, and administrative management of the Institute and works closely with the extramural community, other NIH components, and the NIH Office of the Director.

“My job is really operating as a Chief Operations Officer,” noted Dr. McGowan “That has a number of functions underneath it from tech transfer to cyber technology to communications to legislation, so it is quite encompassing.”

He said the OTD mission is to facilitate discovery and promote the commercialization of biomedical innovations for the betterment of public health and facilitating collaborative relationships between NIAID investigators and the broader scientific community.
“I’m not driven by buying sexy technology, but how do you move organizations forward?” he said.

“That takes not just a technology approach, but a cultural change approach. Literally we have to bring technology to people to show its ease of use and how it makes it easier for them.”

Electronic Scientific Portfolio Assistant (eSPA)

One project trying to develop a change in culture at NIH is the Electronic Scientific Portfolio Assistant (eSPA), which “gives people an online tool that allows you to look at the research that you are funding, essentially in real time.”

Dr. McGowan described the eSPA as getting “a stock report every morning about what is in your portfolio. How much money is invested in different areas of your portfolio? What are the scientific publications with the highest impact? What are the ones that are the most salient? What’s your value per Principal Investigator that you are funding? And then you can do a very detailed analysis.”

The eSPA was a “democratization of information for the scientists here in their programs, so that they would get better at evaluating their portfolios,” he said. “So it was trying to change the culture by bringing evaluation more front and center.”

eSPA development wasn’t very difficult either according to Dr.McGowan.

“Anybody that could put together the computer folks could have done it, but they didn’t think to collapse different tools together with different databases. So that’s unique about what we do.”

He said there are other tools that will take information from NIH in terms of its grants and databases that started emerging outside in the public domain.

“This tool was looking at unfunded grants and also collapsed databases from the Patent Office and others so that you could see whether a specific PI (Principal Investigator) was better than another PI at going for licenses and patents,” he said. “So when you are making funding decisions, if you work in a translational area you could help pick those scientists that were moving forward and helping to move products forward a little bit better.”