How efficient labs could progress sustainability and excellence in research
An exciting new tool is currently being piloted across the UK in an endeavour to standardise best practice across research efficiency, sustainability and quality.
The countless benefits and developments in scientific research are widely known and recognised by society, from better drugs to safer materials and faster technology. However, there’s a rarely reported on ‘dark side’ to science where the materials and energy cost to deliver excellent research, both financially and environmentally, are piling up. With over 2/3  of total university energy usage consumed by laboratory buildings, it’s no surprise that institutions are actively working to minimise their environmental footprint. Pair this with lab waste from consumables like plastics, rubber and foils (often resulting in landfill or incinerated into our atmosphere) and the need for a more sustainable solution becomes apparent.
The Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF), currently being piloted by a group of 16 universities throughout the UK, is aiming to do just this, focussing chiefly on areas that are particularly energy or materials intensive. Five SES universities are currently enrolled in the pilot programme, which includes:
- UCL *
- King’s College London *
- Imperial College London (Grantham Institute) *
- Queen Mary University of London*
- University of Cambridge *
- University of Manchester
- University of Bristol
- University of Cork
- University of Edinburgh
- University fo Glasgow
- University of Strathclyde
- Swansea University
- Manchester Metropolitan University
- University of East Anglia
- University of Brighton
- London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Why Use LEAF?
Initially borne from a challenge by the Wellcome Trust, LEAF is a fresh, new environmental impact and savings tool that improves the quality of lab sustainability frameworks and, uniquely, records the impact of the framework itself. While improving the environmental impact of research is a paramount motivation, LEAF is also aiming to advance transparency on how institutions disburse publicly funded grants, with a duty to ensure that they’re funding research that helps the world and harms it as little as possible in the process.
“Our ultimate goal is to introduce a system which drives efficient and sustainable research, in a way that benefits funders, researchers, and the quality of research itself”
– Martin Farley, LEAF Project Lead
Green lab practitioners have been using variations of a lab sustainability framework for almost a decade with dotted stories of success, though no single tool or framework has been accepted as a standard. By including and considering the following features, LEAF aims to become such a standard to assist both at funding body and local levels:
- An in-tool calculator that generates real-time data on the estimated impact of a lab’s actions, in terms of both carbon and pounds (£) saved on energy and consumables.
- Ensuring the tool is not time-intensive for users. Most labs should be able to achieve a bronze-level award from just 1-2 hours of input.
- Being considerate of and focused at lab users, such as students and tech staff, who often have more time available than Project Investigators (PIs). Criteria should all be feasible for such staff.
- Applicability across a variety of research labs, including wet labs, IT labs and teaching labs.
- Awarding from bronze to gold levels only based on a set of criteria, and having criteria that are progressive.
- Containing criteria that focus on research quality, recognising that a repeated experiment can be the ultimate example of unsustainable or inefficient research.
- A validation process based on evidence and determined by a LEAF steering group.
LEAF in Practice
Dr. Cristina Azevedo, a Research Scientist at UCL, is currently piloting LEAF across 6 labs at the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology (LMCB), with students and post docs engaging with the tool itself. 2018 marks her second year administering LEAF at the LMCB, with an objective to determine and remedy some of the inefficient energy and consumables usage in the labs.
She says, “With LEAF, you can see direct impact. It’s a great tool”. One of the main appeals of LEAF is that it simplified the awarding process, and was created with lab users in mind. Whereas previous frameworks may have required greater amounts of comprehension time or included extraneous targets, LEAF is a more approachable tool for smaller labs.
But there is still an incentive hurdle for labs and centres like the MRC, where the host institution pays the bills and thus reaps the benefits of energy and consumables savings. Dr. Azevedo adds, “at the moment it’s simply happening out of good will and because people are conscientious. There is no requirement to implement these restrictions unless the university were to place an encouragement on good environmental practice, like turning off lights. Currently it doesn’t reflect in any way on our budget”.
“With LEAF, you can see direct impact. It’s a great tool”
– Cristina Azevedo, MRC/UCL Lab for Molecular Cell Biology
Meanwhile at the University of Bristol, Green Impact had been running for years before Sustainable Labs Officer Ana Lewis became involved with the development of LEAF. She has so far managed to recruit the entire Department of Biomedical Sciences, which currently holds Green Lab Accreditation status across all of its labs. In total, she has over 35 teams university-wide committed to the LEAF pilot. It’s a setup where student volunteers are sent in to analyse the labs using LEAF, taking approximately 1.5 hours per lab.
Lewis says, “Not only does it help with understanding the status of each of the faculties/schools in terms of efficiency, but it also shows how the process works to potential, future sustainability leaders”.
On to Greener Pastures
A successful application of LEAF would result in reduced costs, reduced pollution and improved understanding of operations and how they relate to research outcomes. Preliminary data from pilot groups at UCL indicate that small lab groups using LEAF can save £5,000 per annum in procurement costs and energy, as well as implement simple steps aimed at improving rigour and reproducibility. If applied across all funded labs and institutes in the UK there stands a conservative estimate of £50 million in total savings.
Ultimately, sustainability comes down to finance and metrics. Understanding where money and carbon savings lie, and having universities provide incentive to laboratories (whether through cost recovery, policy or funding requirements) will help to move frameworks like LEAF forwards on a wider and more standardised scale. While the UK does boast the Green Impact agenda, there is no existing program to implement sustainable laboratory practices systemically. In the long-term, LEAF would likely include major funding bodies in discussions on implementing conditions around environmental impact of research.