Debbie Knight

The cost of research

In observation on December 1, 2011 at 6:55 pm

Through university announcements, I will hear about an individual researcher or research team receiving National Institutes of Health grant funding. That’s always good news to hear, especially with grant funding so difficult to secure these days.

But the amounts of the awards stagger my mind.

It is not uncommon to hear announcements that a researcher received a $1.5 million NIH grant. That seems like a lot of money. But if you break it down: a four-year grant of that size would come to $375,000 per year.

That seems a little more reasonable when you start to consider what the money goes toward.

The first order of business is paying the people to do the research. Personnel salaries and benefits can account for up to 70 percent of the total budget. A large chunk of the money goes toward the principal investigator who directs the research and the e technician, graduate student, and/or post-doctoral researcher who actually perform the experiments.

The rest of the money goes toward the supplies and equipment needed to do the experiments.

And let me tell you, research is expensive!

My former boss used to jokingly say that for research supply costs, just move the decimal over one place (meaning there is an incredible markup of price for supplies purchased from scientific supply companies).

It is understandable that scientific equipment like flow cytometers and gas chromatographs, designed to make very precise measurements, will be expensive. It is also understandable that many of the supplies used specifically for that equipment will also be expensive – especially if the scientific company is the only supplier for those supplies.

But what about the small stuff? The general supplies used by a lab?

You can’t just go down to your local mercantile and buy a case of plastic tubes, culture flasks, reagent-grade chemicals, or antibodies. You have to buy these sorts of items through a scientific supply company.

Many researchers do their best to get the lowest prices, asking vendors for price quotes, buying in bulk, and using vendors that give the university a discounted price, taking advantage of vendor sale specials. But even with these cost-saving measures, the supplies are still expensive.

Admittedly, there are some supplies that could be purchased from a local store much cheaper than from a scientific vendor. However, the university keeps very close tabs on how research grant funding is spent. A researcher can’t just go down to the local grocer and buy supplies such as non-fat dried milk, plastic wrap or aluminum foil and charge it to his research account. This practice is frowned upon by the university because it is difficult to track spending and difficult to prevent fraud. In addition, there is a prohibitive amount of red tape to hack through to do something this simple and cost-saving.

I recently saved my lab (and the American tax payers) a bundle of money.

The list price of nylon mesh from a well-reputed scientific supply company is $359 for three 12-inch squares (we’ll call this 3 square feet, so it costs about $120 per square foot). Admittedly, this mesh is made pretty carefully: the mesh size is very tightly controlled and no human hands have touched it. And some labs may need this amount of precision. But all we will be doing is filtering cells through it, so it doesn’t need to be so pristine. I purchased the mesh (aka silk screen) from a local art supply store where I paid $8.49 per yard. This mesh is about 3 feet wide, so a yard would be about 9 square feet – that’s 94 cents per square foot. Much cheaper! I paid for it out of my own pocket, but that’s okay, I couldn’t justify paying the scientific supply company’s outlandish price.

There are other supplies that fall into this category such as aluminum foil. From the same scientific supply company, a 200-foot roll of Reynold’s aluminum foil costs $37. The university buys it in bulk and sells it to labs for $10. And if I trot down to the local grocery store, it would cost about $6. Now I can’t go buying everything out of my pocket, so in this instance, I go with the university’s pricing.

Sometimes it just takes smart shopping. For example, my former boss just bought a ultra-low freezer (it cools things down to minus 80 degrees Celsius (or minus 112 Fahrenheit), instead of the standard minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit of the home appliance freezer). Instead of paying $11,000 for a new freezer, he saved quite a bit of money by buying a demonstration model from the scientific supply company for $7,000. The demo only had a surface dent on it and he reports that it works perfectly fine.

One researcher set out to equip a home molecular biology lab for $500, buying used equipment from Craig’s List, eBay, and other Internet sites. He was able to find a thermocycler, pipetters, a pH meter, a centrifuge, a scale, a transilluminator and electrophoresis equipment that would have cost ~$7,000 for $453.12 (plus shipping). Granted, the equipment was most likely older and more likely to need repairs sooner than a newer counterpart, but the idea that research can be done on such a shoe-string budget is amazing.

Of course, it’s not uncommon for university labs to go on scavenger missions when news hits that a lab is closing, down-sizing, or just getting rid of equipment that they no longer need. I’ve been on a number of those missions in my career and you can find some really good stuff this way. The price is even right: free!

There is a hidden cost, in addition to supplies, equipment and personnel. This is something the university calls “indirect costs.” These costs include the utilities, maintenance, and administrative costs. In terms of NIH funding, for a $1.5 million grant award, the NIH would give the university an additional $780,000. This means the NIH gives the researcher and university a total of $2.28 million over those four years.

So there you have it. The cost of research. The price tag may look high (especially at first blush) but we need to remember that many great discoveries are generated from this funding.

But with the current funding crisis, there are fewer grant dollars. So there may be an additional cost of research: the loss of scientists and a slowing of scientific discoveries. But that is a topic for another day.

  1. Excellent post. Funny drawing. Is that your work?

    Your knowledge of this industry is very valuable, Debbie.

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