How much does it cost to run an academic lab? (Part 2)

August 13, 2012

Last week, I christened the hashtag #OpenBudget in a post about how much it costs to run my small academic lab at Princeton. Today I will drill deeper into my budget numbers, presenting expenditure breakdowns for one representative fiscal year. Why am I doing this? Well, if I’m going to ask the crowd for $20,000-$25,000 to fund a targeted research project, which they have little or no expertise to evaluate, it behooves me, at a minimum, to be transparent about the money I’ve already spent conducting research in a related area.


Also, this exercise in disclosure goes hand in hand with recent Open Science gestures by colleagues in the field of Ecology, @ethanwhite and @ctitusbrown, among others, many of whom have uploaded both successful and unsuccessful grant proposals to the data-sharing portal Figshare.


I left off last time with an enumeration, in broad strokes, of monthly burn rates over my 5-year appointment. The most expensive line item in my budget is, not surprisingly, the cost of labor. Out of the total $1,000,000 “under management,” I spent $529,249.82 (53%) on personnel, specifically Masters-level research associates (aka technicians). However, labor costs fluctuated from month to month, as shown here:

Fiscal years are color-coded; there is missing data in FY 2008 (orange) and FY2011 (yellow).


And what’s the second largest line item? At ~40% of total expenditures, you guessed it: materials and supplies. For a more refined view of non-personnel spending, I’ll use the numbers from FY 2010, which represents the halfway point of my fellowship, as a case study:


Salary and benefits for two full-time technicians came out to 42% of my total FY 2010 budget, lower than other years because I made a one-time purchase of a $40,000 instrument in September 2009. Core facilities and overhead totaled just over 6%, and this included use of a departmental electron microscope. The cost of academic conferences was less than 1%. And I wound up with a non-trivial surplus (9%) that rolled over into the following year’s budget.


Here’s a plot of every Materials & Supplies purchase made over the course of FY 2010, with the exception of the aforementioned $40k instrument (note log scale):


Most purchases fell into the $100-$1000 range, and there weren’t any obvious seasonal variations. The ~$10k spike in early July 2010 was for a shaking incubator. Close to 60% of material and supplies were purchased from just 3 mega-vendors: Fisher (18%), Sigma-Aldrich (14%) and Invitrogen (26%).


Purchasing was a bit streaky in that the lab would sometimes go a week or two without any, so to smooth out the data I graphed the same numbers on a per month basis, resulting in an average of $4,165/month:

I hope sharing is as contagious as everyone claims it to be. If so, the scientific community will be one step closer to crowdfunding on a scale that rivals the sums currently provided by the NIH and NSF.

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  • bs

    Thanks for this. As someone writing a budget its nice to see some perspective!

  • MW CSU

    I agree with “bs” below. This has been extremely helpful.