The Dizzying Cost of Life Science Research

If sticker shock is freaking you out, you’re not alone
DEC 2019
Erika
A.
Biological Engineering

Where were you when you bought the most expensive thing you’ve ever purchased? I was definitely in lab.

In life science, you can spend a staggering amount of the lab’s money on tiny tubes of liquid. As a small, delicate, expensive thing, purchasing a tiny tube of liquid feels a bit like buying jewelry.

For instance, think about a diamond ring. Diamonds are hard solid nuggets that confer a feeling of safety: “diamonds are forever”. Similarly, you can go online and buy a DNA library; it will arrive in a tube the size of your pinkie that costs $6k and contains 0.1 mL of clear water. Be forewarned! Interacting with this tube is anxiety-inducing! This tube is not forever — it could get contaminated. It’s not solid — as a liquid, it can be fumbled and spilled. This tube will not make you feel safe — it’s destined for a finicky and laborious experiment that could go horribly wrong and that you might need to repeat several times. Be prepared to fret every time you open this tube and have nightmares about misplacing it in the depths of a messy fridge. Yet, despite all these differences, both the diamond ring and the tube cost just about two months of post-tax salary for a graduate student, the suggested cost of an engagement ring.

Indeed, the cash flow of research is all the more puzzling to observe when you’re living on a graduate student stipend. Imagine this day: you go to work in the morning and reorder some reagents ($262 for a tube of USER enzyme, and $558 for 10g of Bluo-Gal). Then in the evening, you’re shopping at Trader Joe’s and spend five minutes pondering whether you can afford organic strawberries for $5.99. In lab, you can easily drop $500 on DNA sequencing in a day; it’s routine — the cost of doing business. But outside of lab, $500 is about half your monthly rent in Cambridge, so it’s just not a daily occurrence to plop down that amount of cash in one fell swoop. In lab, when you blow through 10 boxes of filter tips in a day at $15 each, you’re praised as being productive. Out of lab, you fret about people stealing your laundry detergent because that stuff’s expensive! It’s called a ‘stipend’ and not a ‘salary’ for a reason: it’s not very much money. Graduate students in life sciences are inevitably trusted to manage more cash flow at work than cash flow of their own.

Brace yourself, because it gets worse. The cost of life science research is actually even higher than just the materials themselves. You, a graduate student, doing absolutely no experiments, cost your professor, program, or fellowship about ~$35k/year in stipend (admittedly, very little) and tuition (~$60k/year… even if you take zero classes), and health insurance, which all together works out to ~$250/day. In addition, your lab pays “overhead”: a system where the lab hands over about half of all incoming money to the university in exchange for “renting” bench space and keeping the lights on. To top it off, someone pays for service contracts on the equipment you use, and these contracts can cost a decent fraction of an additional employee. This means that your time as a researcher in lab costs way more than you get paid: you cost way more than $250/day, but you only get paid less than $100/day. This gives rise to bizarre situations: it’s financially advantageous to spend $250 on your project if it saves a day of time in lab, but nobody is going to put $250 in your pocket for a day of your time (unless you have a sweet consulting gig).

In life science research, people often outsource tasks to companies that do DNA sequencing/cloning/etc. Often, it’s a very wise decision financially to pay extra for services that are reliable and time efficient, rather than risk that your project will get stuck for a month (which effectively costs $250*30 = $7500). But when you personally get paid $2300/month after tax, it seems impossible that spending $7500 on anything is a good idea.

In summary: graduate students are in a unique position to struggle with financial management in science. We are accustomed to setting budgets and reasoning about our personal money — which exists on a totally different order of magnitude than budgets in life science. Keep in mind that many incoming graduate students are still getting used to managing money at all. For many students, it may be their first time living outside a dorm and needing to budget for utilities, etc. These students are going to have even worse sticker shock when they get to lab. It’s easy to feel anxious and uneasy when you’re not sure how much money you’re supposed to be spending, or whether an expense is worth it. The worst part is: if you make a bad call in lab, the mistake seems so costly because, if it were coming out of your own pocket, it would be.

We could do a lot better preparing graduate students to be good stewards of money — both lab money and personal money. Graduate school is designed to train students for careers as scientists, and learning to financially manage science projects is an essential skill that should be taught in graduate school. Unfortunately, it’s basically unheard of. More broadly, researchers rarely talk openly about the financial aspects of running a lab. In the same way that most talks have an acknowledgement slide listing the people who contributed to the work, why not include a slide outlining the general budget for the project? Even showing these budgets internally — to the people who do the work — would go a long way. Some labs already do this, and I applaud them! For other PIs, please think about doing this! Setting expectations for spending and talking about the financial tradeoffs in science can alleviate much of the unease that comes from sticker shock.

 

You can find me on instagram @erika.alden or twitter @erika_alden_d.