Here's what it actually costs to run a university science lab

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So you want to be a mad scientist, and dedicate yourself to a life of the mind? It's not just a matter of finding mind-controlled minions and a bottle of Plutonium. Academic scientific research is a very pricey undertaking, with millions of person hours and billions of your tax dollars spent in an effort to bring the future a little closer to the present every year. To give you an idea of how your tax dollars are spent, here is a breakdown of a typical faculty member's financial situation, and how they stay afloat.

What does a new faculty member start with?

A new faculty member, fresh off a purgatory of post-doctoral research stints, receives a "start-up" package from the university (and more importantly, the department) they have just joined. This start-up package is mandated in the faculty member's initial contract, and often becomes a sticking point in negotiations. The package can be anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000 or more, depending on the research field and the type of research the faculty member will perform. This chunk of money is intended to allow the new faculty member to purchase the basic instrumentation and equipment necessary for their research, materials, and pay for the salaries of post-doctoral researchers and, if in a department where their stipends are not defrayed by teaching, graduate students. This money is finite, with the expectation that the faculty member will seek and obtain funding from an outside grant agency early in their career (with funding being an expectation for tenure in many programs). It is important to note that faculty members at non-research based universities receive a much reduced start-up package, or do not receive one at all.


Acquiring Funding

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are the two major government funded bodies that disburse money to scientists, with the NIH spearheading grant allocation to research that has health relevance and the NSF funding basic science.


In the 2010 fiscal year, the NIH was allotted 31.2 billion dollars while the NSF was allotted 6.5 billion. These may sound like astounding numbers, but the NIH and NSF combine for less than 0.1% of overall Federal spending in 2010. According to the NIH, roughly one in five grant applications are funded, with these grants funded through a competitive process, with ten months to a year separation a grant application from the actual time that funding begins. Private funding is also available for some projects pertaining to major health issues, but the body of money available from the NIH and NSF dwarfs others funding sources.

Maintaining a Lab

It costs money to pay for the materials used in a lab, whether it be pipette tips, reactants, or other materials necessary to provide the appropriate conditions to perform experiments, with these materials not disbursed by the department in most cases. The cost of these "consumables" can be anywhere from $20,000 or more per year, with the cost increasing with an increase in the number of people in a lab and the price of special reactants. It's never fun to receive a 5 mg bottle of a reactant and learn that the reactant cost $300 per milligram. That makes for some tense times in graduate school.


Buying New Equipment

General NIH and NSF grant money is often expected to pay for labor and consumables, so any piece of instrumentation not bought with start-up money calls for 1) groveling to department heads or 2) writing a (successful) NSF or NIH instrument grant. These are often for shared instruments, as the NIH and NSF look upon shared instruments kindly as they increase the efficiency and use of the instrument. In addition to money necessary for purchase of the instrument, costly instruments typically require a high degree of costly maintenance and/or additional personnel to run the instrument. Annual service contracts that cover maintenance responsibilities can range from a $5,000 on an analytical ultracentrifuge to $100,000 or more on a state of the art transmission cryo-electron microscope (as can be seen in the associated picture). The money for maintenance and personnel either comes from written commitments from users placed within the instrument grant, fees to use the instrument, or from an institutional agreement attached to the initial grant money that secured the instrument.


Making Money for the University

Researchers aren't a money pit, however. Between 45 to 50% of every research grant won by the faculty member is labeled "indirect costs" and retained by the university. This can be an astounding amount of money (at least $112,500 on a typical $250,000 a year NSF grant) and goes to the university to pay for general expenses like electricity and providing an office staff. This is a high rate, and as such, the "indirect costs" also re-pay a part of the researcher's start-up package. In a faculty member's career, however, one can see how they could pay for their start-up costs several times over if they maintain a number of grants over their lifetime, allowing the university to profit in addition to any work done by the professor in the classroom or committees.


In addition to indirect costs, thanks to the Bayh-Dohl Act of 1980, the university receives the majority of any money obtained from a patent or intellectual property that is developed by a faculty member. This has been a boon for several universities, especially in the one in million world of pharmaceutical development. A great example of this is the work of Robert Holton's group in the late 1980s and the early 1990s at Florida State University. His group developed a total synthesis of Taxol, a very commercially viable anti-cancer drug originally isolated from tree bark. Bristol-Myers Squibb entered an agreement for his method and other future patents, producing tens of millions of dollars in revenue for Florida State University each year. The crystal structure of paclitaxel, the generic name for Taxol, can be seen above.


Utility of Research

A lot of these expectations and hoops are put in place to ensure that a faculty member produces quality work. Additionally, once tenure is attained, there is little a department or university can do to increase the production of a researcher's lab - it is incredibly difficult to remove a tenured professor (and there probably need to be modifications to the current tenure system as it stands).


So, the next time you read a blurb about a scientific discovery where ants fight to the death in a ring made of simple sugars, or about a major breakthrough in cancer treatment, just remember that there is a lot of money that went into it, and a lot of work that went into obtaining that money. The science was worthwhile enough for someone to dedicate years of their life to it, and, in the end, it hopefully brought a graduate student one step closer to earning their Ph.D. - it did with me. If you ever want to see how your money is being allocated, visit the NSF or NIH search engines. Put in the name of a couple of your professors, and see if they are pulling their weight.

Images from the AP and Technai. Top photo by Shishkov Nickolai/Shutterstock. Extraneous data supplied through 5.5 years of graduate school. I blocked most of it out, but there's a black book on the shelf that has my name on it, so surely I went. At least I think so.