Debbie Knight

Frugal times, frugal measures: An innovative model may reduce the cost of scientific research

In research issue(s) on March 27, 2011 at 7:44 am

In the university setting, a major chunk of grant money goes toward supplies and equipment needed by scientists to do research.

Traditionally, most academic research laboratories act as independent entities, even within a department. This means laboratory supplies are purchased by an individual lab, according to its own research needs. This also means that each lab is outfitted with its own equipment and instrumentation specifically used by its lab members.

This practice often leads to a redundancy of equipment within a department.

Not the best business model, I know.

Not many academic labs can afford to outfit themselves with all the equipment they might need throughout their research endeavors – especially as research needs change over time as experimental results point to new directions to explore.

It is not uncommon for a lab to use another lab’s equipment. This “sharing” of equipment resources is somewhat collaborative – though there are invisible “strings” attached, one of which is that both labs remain on good terms with each other. And nothing will destroy that working relationship more quickly than improper use of that equipment. So, the “borrowers” must tread carefully if they wish to continue “sharing” resources.

I was lucky enough to step away from tradition and participate in an innovative model for sharing lab resources.

Three years ago, I joined a research lab that was part of the Center for Microbial Interface Biology (or CMIB, for short). The central core of the CMIB was comprised of six individual labs that acted more like one large lab with six distinct research interests. During my time at the CMIB, three additional labs had been added. It should be noted that there are many more labs affiliated with the CMIB, but only the core nine labs participated in the shared resource model.

In the CMIB, all large pieces of equipment are considered communal. So, centrifuges, freezers, biosafety cabinets, thermocyclers, incubators, etc. are shared amongst all the labs – i.e., it does not belong to an individual lab.

The lab(s) responsible for equipment purchases are rotated as the needs of the community evolve. These purchases take a majority vote by the faculty members and include feedback from CMIB members, including research scientists, post-doctoral researchers, research associates, and senior graduate students. Truly, a community decision.

The advantage? This model eliminates redundancy in equipment purchases. So, one high-speed centrifuge serves nine labs instead of one.

And what about lab supplies? This model extends to lab supplies as well.

Pretty much all the labs use latex gloves, serological pipets, pipet tips, and centrifuge tubes, so these are staples maintained in a centralized storage room called the “core supply room.” And every year, in an excruciatingly long meeting, the core supply list is reevaluated, item by item. Some items remain on the list, while others are dropped or added based on the ever-changing needs of the CMIB.

A potential advantage to this system is that, in theory, the CMIB can work with vendors to reduce the cost of supplies due to the volume of supplies purchased. I say “in theory” because as far as I could tell, the CMIB has yet to successfully use its size for leveraging better pricing.

So how do the labs pay for the “core supplies’?  The metrics for calculating this is a bit cumbersome, but it goes something like this. The more personnel an individual lab has, the more money it will potentially need to kick in toward the shared supplies. But size isn’t the only parameter. It also depends on the type of personnel working in the labs.  Each class of worker is weighted in the formula. For example, a research scientist is assumed to do more research and therefore consume more supplies than a graduate student. So not only does the total number of personnel matter, but the number of research scientists, post-doctoral researchers, research associates, and graduate students working in a lab are considered when determining how much each lab contributes toward the core supplies. This is evaluated on a yearly basis.

While the advantages to sharing the cost of research supplies and equipment outweigh the disadvantages, I feel I must mention the downside of this model. For example, there is one lab in the CMIB that has such unique research needs that they pay more toward the core supplies than they actually use – i.e., this model isn’t really cost effective for them.

Another aspect of this model is the potential for waste. Here you have a room filled with supplies (envision full grocery store shelves) and unless the lab personnel are acutely aware of the cost of research supplies (and most are not), they might perceive there’s an endless supply of, well, supplies. This perceived abundance can lead to unnecessary waste, rather than using the supplies sparingly and in a cost-effective manner.

Even I, a seasoned veteran who understands how much supplies cost, had to make a mental adjustment when I left the CMIB and returned to the traditional model in February. I was amazed how I had grown accustomed to the “abundance” the CMIB offered.

Having lived in both cultures, I would wholeheartedly recommend more researchers adopt the shared resource model – especially in these times of lean federal funding.

While there are a few shortfalls that remain to be addressed, the shared resource model that the CMIB uses is a seemingly sound business principle – it reduces the overall cost of research while promoting a strong sense of community and collaboration that extend beyond the physical needs of the labs. Concepts that scientific researchers should embrace but often do not.

Please note:  all photos in this blog post were taken while I worked in the CMIB

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