How much does it cost to run an academic lab?
When I tell academic colleagues that I’m interested in crowdfunding my research, I hear the same skeptical refrain: “A couple of grand is peanuts compared to a R01, so what’s the point?” Obviously, to think we can catapult in a single bound from the $100s to $1,000s raised by recent science crowdfunding successes, e.g., the SciFund Challenge or whole-genome sequencing of rare disease patients, to the $100,000s is absurd. That’s why I’m planning a proof-of-concept crowdfunding experiment in the intermediate $10,000s range.
Which gets me thinking: on average, how much does it actually cost to run a small academic lab? There’s not much out there in the blogosphere in terms of budget datasets – if there are, please provide links below in the comment thread – so I decided to create my own. I’ve been a Lewis-Sigler Fellow at Princeton since 2007, where I’ve managed a $200,000/year budget and overseen a two-employee lab for the last 5 years.
By releasing these figures into the wild, I hope to stimulate several conversations, first and foremost, regarding efficiency. To clarify, I don’t exclusively mean preventing waste arising from ill-advised equipment purchases. Rather, I mean tackling the asymmetric marketplace in research transactions, along the lines of what science startups like Science Exchange and Assay Depot are doing. Second, if crowdfunding is ever going to compete with the government monopoly on funding, the global research community needs to share their spending habits in order to expose non-obvious inefficiencies, and to illuminate unmarked paths toward greater efficiency that become apparent when comparisons are made across many labs, regions and disciplines.
Okay, with that preamble out of the way, let’s talk numbers.
Each month, I receive an electronic statement detailing expenditures – in the parlance of commerce, my “burn rate.” Here I graphed my lab’s monthly burn rate over the length of my soon-to-be-completed appointment at Princeton:
I’ve color-coded fiscal years (July 1 – June 30) to make comparisons easier. Aside from a spike in September 2009, when I made a one-time > $40,000 instrument purchase, my burn rate has been fairly consistent. The single most expensive line item is – you guessed it – personnel, which consumed well over half of my budget. I should note that my lab is atypical in that I’ve employed two full-time Masters-level research associates (technicians). Experienced technicians are more expensive than trainees, e.g., graduate students and postdocs. Based on these numbers, one can begin to understand why the pitched cries over protracted apprenticeships as a form of indentured servitude have a basis in reality.
Interestingly, there appear to be lulls when my lab spent less money than average, and, conversely, volatile periods when my lab spent more money than average. To see if there are seasonal patterns, I graphed the burn rate data by month:
The Fall is the most volatile season, followed by a stretch of below-average consumption in the Winter and Spring, and concluding with a modest ramp up in the Summer. The Fall volatility is mostly driven by an artifact of my appointment start date. I attribute the under-consumption of Winter and Spring to thrift and my desire to maintain reserves, even though my funds roll over. However, by May it was usually clear how much money remained, and I became bolder with purchases in the Summer, not to mention that Summer is the academic conference season, and these meetings are expensive.
In Part 2, I examine my lab’s spending patterns at higher temporal resolution, and take a closer look at the costs of personnel vs. consumables/reagents/services.