Tag Archives: research funding

WHY IS SCIENCE SO VERY EXPENSIVE? WHY DO RESEARCH EXPERIMENTS COST SO MUCH?

Why are Science and Research so Very Expensive? (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Why are Science and Research so Very Expensive?      (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Modern scientific research each year costs many billions of dollars in the USA, and over a trillion dollars in the entire globe [1,2]!  Research studies are supported by money from taxpayers, industry, and some dedicated group associations.  Even a casual look at scientists working on laboratory experiments shows that their activities always have a high cost.  Why exactly are science and research so very expensive? 

            There are many separate reasons why modern research always is costly.  First is the cost of salaries.  Research scientists deserve a good salary, due to their very long education and advanced training, specialized job skills, and previous lab experience in science.  Doctoral scientists have spent at least 4 years working on their graduate thesis, and then usually spend another 1-5 years as a postdoctoral research associate (see recent article in the Basic Introductions category on “All About Postdocs, Part I: What are Postdocs, and What do they Do?”).  When academic faculty jobs are scarce, some researchers spend 5-10 years, or even more, working as Postdocs, before they finally land a beginning position in academia or in an industrial laboratory.  This means that most scientists really find their first career employment at around 30-40 years of age.  Other lab personnel also have special training, and thus must also receive a good salary.  All the payments for salaries of the Principal Investigator, Postdocs, research technicians, and graduate students add up to many dollars each year. 

             Second is the cost of special research supplies and materials.   Laboratory experiments frequently involve usage of special supplies for the preparation and analysis of research samples.  Even the water used to prepare simple buffers and solutions must first be processed to a very high purity level before it becomes suitable for research usage.  Unusual chemical supplies are expensive because they must be custom-synthesized or specially isolated; only after final purity assays do these become suitable for use in research studies.  Special materials in high purity are essential for many lab experiments and inevitably cost many dollars. 

             Third is the cost of special research equipment.  Typical lab research at universities requires at least several pieces of expensive research instrumentation (e.g., amino-acid analyzers, automated analytical chromatography systems, facilities for cell culture, light and electron microscopes, mass spectrographs, polymerase chain reaction machines, temperature- and pressure-controlled reaction chambers, ultracentrifuges, etc.).  Even after their purchase, there are further expenses for annual service contracts or repairs, adjunctive support facilities, and add-on accessories; in addition, salaries for research technicians trained to operate these special research instruments must be included here.  Special research instrumentation always costs lots of money. 

             Fourth is the cost of time.  Good research typically takes much time to be completed.  Conducting research is always an exploration of the unknown, and never progresses in an automatic manner.   Many non-scientists have heard about the so-called “scientific method for research”, wrongly leading them to view experiments as cut and dried exercises that always work as planned; nothing could be farther from the truth!  Not all experiments work, and many of those that do work proceed in a different manner than expected.  Acquiring one unanticipated result sometimes necessitates undertaking several new experiments in order to pin down the whys and wherefores of the earlier new data.  All research results must be repeated at least once in order to have confidence that they are bonafide and statistically reliable.  Modern experimental research studies typically take about 6 months to 2 years to reach the stage of being able to publish the results in a professional journal.  The long time needed for conducting research work costs lots of money. 

            Fifth are the adjunctive costs of conducting research studies.  Where certain samples are used for the research studies, a number of special adjunctive costs arise.  Use of laboratory animals for experimental research is increasingly costly, due to the rules for animal care regulations and required veterinary oversight/support.  For cases where clinical research is conducted in a hospital setting, there are considerable costs for associated patient care, clinical and research chemistry, professional support services, etc.  For cases where clinical samples are researched outside hospitals, work in special bio-containment facilities with safety monitoring is required.    These required extra costs are in addition to all the many usual research expenses. 

             Scientific research costs lots of money because all he many different experimental operations require use of special supplies and instruments, salaries for specially trained research workers, specified safety measures for certain specimens, specified measures for use and disposal of radioactive materials and  toxic substances, and, many other adjunctive expenses.  All these different costs are needed for a time period typically measured in years.  As the saying goes, it all sure does add up! 

 Concluding remarks

             I have tried to give enough details here so that non-scientists will readily see how modern research studies necessitate substantial total expenses in the USA.  All of these perfectly usual costs for one individual scientist then must be multiplied by the number of research professionals, in order to arrive at the total national costs being spent annually on research.   That is a huge figure, but sometimes one must add the large sums paid for those research projects involving Big Science (e.g., space probes, oceanographic surveys, clinical trials of new pharmacological agents, etc.), and for use of special research facilities at one of the national laboratories (e.g., Brookhaven National Laboratory, Sandia Laboratories, advanced photon source at the Argonne National Laboratory, etc.).  The grand total costs for annual research expenses thus become a truly gigantic number of dollars. 

             This valid realization about the huge costs of doing scientific research in the USA sets the stage for a big follow-up question, asking whether the value obtained for science and society is worth this total cost?  I will discuss this difficult question at a later time. 

 

[1]  Hourihan, M., for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2014.  R&D in the FY 2014 omnibus: The big picture.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.aaas.org/news/rd-fy-2014-omnibus-big-picture . 

[2]  Battelle, and, R&D Magazine, 2013.  2014 global R&D funding forecast.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.battelle.org/docs/tpp/2014_global_rd_funding_forecast.pdf?sfvrsn=4 . 

 

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INTRODUCTION TO MONEY IN MODERN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

Dollars for Research.signedIt’s all money !  Is the purpose of research really just to acquire money ??                                                        (http://dr-monsrs.net)

           

            Money for experimental research plays a very large role in modern science.  The key importance of money is due to: (1) research studies are very expensive, (2) without money, almost no experimental studies can be conducted, (3) not all good ideas are able to be funded by the granting agencies, and, (4) large portions of research grant awards are not being spent for actual research expenses. 

 

            Most research support in the USA comes either from federal grants to universities and small businesses, or from internal budgets for research and development in industrial companies.  The sum of all this dedicated support for experimental research studies is many billions of dollars each year; this huge figure clearly demonstrates the great importance of scientific research for the good of all people.   In Fiscal Year 2011, the grand total of all grants awarded for support of research by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) was $5,103,500,000 [1].  The total research and development outlays for all nondefense studies from any sources in this same period were over 65 billion dollars [2].  These billion dollar sums prove that modern research indeed is very expensive.  Special fundung programs, often requiring establishment of a multi-user facility, have been set-up for applications to purchase very large and particularly expensive special research instruments. 

 

            Research grant funds are spent by scientists for the purchase of supplies (e.g., chemicals, blank DVDs, specimen holders, test tubes), acquisition or usage of some special research equipment (e.g., regulated very high temperature ovens, chromatography columns and systems, personal computers), and, purchase of business travel (e.g., to collect specimens or data in the field, to attend annual science meetings).  They also are used to pay for telephone usage and copying costs, employment of laboratory personnel, support of graduate students working in the laboratory, provision of partial  salary for the grant-holder (i.e., Principal Investigator), adjunctive costs of performing experiments (e.g., utilization of an institutional or regional research facilities, the costs of monitoring radiation exposure, care and housing for research animals), etc.  Unless someone pays, all these activities would stop. 

 

            Although there are federal and institutional oversight controls to verify which expenses are bonafide and necessary, the inherent nature of the present research grant system means that  large amounts of money are not being spent for direct support of the actual research experiments (i.e.,  therefore, my view is that they are being wasted!).  Some of these wated funds are spent on redundant or unnecessary expenses.  Other wastage comes from the frequent absence of organized mechanisms for re-assignment and re-use of expensive research equipment that is no longer needed (i.e., why pass along a 5-10 year old working research instrument belonging to the late Professor Jones, when the new faculty member, Assistant Professor Smith, can buy the very latest model with his newly awarded research grant?).  It is well-known amongst grant-holders that all awarded funds must be spent; there is no official capability to bank any unspent research grant funds, nor is there any encouragement to ever try to save money and then return unspent portions of the awarded funds. 

 

            The very largest inappropriate expenditure of research grant funds in my view is for payments of indirect costs.  Direct costs for scientific research are those necessarily spent to conduct experiments (see the many examples given above).  Indirect costs are those needed for such purposes as cleaning, heating, cooling, painting, and maintenance of the lab room(s), safety inspections, administrative activities, disposal of garbage and chemical waste, provision and drainage of water, etc.).  All of these expenditures for indirect costs are very necessary for the research conducted by faculty scientists, and certainly must be paid; however, I do question exactly who should pay for them.  At universities, many faculty in mathematics and computer science, the non-science faculty, and scholars working in library science, music, and art all need the same type of services listed above; however, the indirect costs of these faculty mostly are paid by some institutional entity.  Only faculty scientists holding a research grant and using a laboratory are required to pay for their indirect costs; senior doctoral scientists working at teaching and writing books, but no longer doing any laboratory studies, are not asked to pay for their indirect costs.  This selective targeting seems very peculiar to me. 

 

            At some academic institutions research grant payments for indirect costs are even larger than those for the direct costs.  Hence, big portions of research grant awards are being diverted away from their nominal purpose.  I must conclude that the payment of indirect costs by grants awarded to support scientific research constitutes a large waste of research grant funds and is not necessary.  My conclusion is very unusual since both the granting agencies and the universities agree to this peculiar policy.  I suspect, but cannot prove, that many working scientists holding research grants agree with me; I do know from talking with numerous university faculty scientists that most believe that current indirect cost rates are unrealistic and must be way too high. 


            All of the research grant awards now being misdirected to pay for indirect costs would be much better spent if they were used to permit more awards for direct costs to be made that (1) provide full, rather than only partial, funding, (2) give funding to a larger number of worthy applicants than is presently possible, and (3) enable some funding programs to extend for at least 10 years, instead of the 1-5 year period of support that is typical at present.  I will discuss all these issues and ideas for their solutions much further in later posts.

 

[1]   American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2013.  Research funding at the National Science Foundation, FY 2011.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/migrate/uploads/DiscNSF.png .

[2]   American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2013.  Trends in nondefense R&D (research and devlopment) by function (FY 2011).  Available on the internet at:

http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/migrate/uploads/FunctionNON.jpg .

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