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Outsourcing Research: Should Your Experiment Spend Some Time Away from You?

As a researcher, it’s satisfying to manage your own projects and do the bench work yourself. After all, if you don’t have experience with a technique, you’re usually expected to figure it out (with or without direct supervision).

In some situations, dealing with difficult molecular techniques is simply part of the job description. The scientific world is full of people who have years of experience and ‘green thumbs’ when it comes to bench work. However, success is not guaranteed just because a technique is well-described and (in theory) straightforward. Even with careful planning, a simple experiment can turn into a major roadblock. Repeating experiments costs extra money and extra time.

All research scientists know that time is of the essence. Fast results mean more published papers and (hopefully) more grant funding. In most labs, there is a necessary trade-off between rapid results and a limited budget. Often, labs spend research money to upgrade equipment to save time performing various techniques. But there’s a time-saving strategy you may not have thought of – outsourcing research.

Custom cloning, PCR, viral vector production, sequencing, CRISPR, gene synthesis and many other services are now commercially available. It’s even possible to buy transgenic and CRISPR mice essentially off-the-shelf. But how do you decide whether outsourcing research is a good idea for your project?

Outsourcing Research Saves You Money and Time

As much as there’s a sense of pride in performing all the work on a pet project, it’s important to realize that nobody can be everywhere at once. If you weren’t dueling with stubborn plasmid cloning or attempting to create an elusive transgenic mouse, what other work would you be doing? As much as you may sometimes feel a little underappreciated, your time is valuable.

It’s a costs vs reward situation. Many lab heads forget that their staff and students are not free labor. If it costs $2000 to get reagents produced externally and only $500 to get a postdoc to do the same task, many PIs will naturally get the job done in-house. However, if the hapless postdoc spends 50 hours grappling with the task, has the lab really saved any money? What other important work has been put on hold?

Laboratory science is a process of constant discovery. Creating and optimizing new techniques is part of the process, but it makes no sense to re-invent the wheel.  If a highly-trained Anatomy postdoc is desperately trying to figure out basic cloning from scratch, that’s not an effective use of lab time and money. Even in the current climate of shrinking funding, forcing lab members to spend time on unfamiliar repetitive tasks can be a false economy.

In addition, funding shortages may mean that graduate students and postdocs are performing most of the hands-on work. It makes no sense for people expected to create original research with tight deadlines to spend all their time doing basic techniques.

Outsourced research may be done much faster, meaning valuable pilot data is available sooner for that do-or-die grant application. Also, if your lab doesn’t routinely do the technique, outsourcing means that you don’t need to spend time and money on setup. The external provider already has all the materials and equipment in place – not to mention the expertise.

So far, this article may sound like an argument for outsourcing just about everything. But before you get too excited, consider the nature of molecular biology.

Troubleshooting Builds Skills

Companies offer almost every external service imaginable and many of them simply aren’t economically feasible for your average academic research group. If there’s lab personnel already dedicated to specialized techniques, then it makes no sense to outsource research. However, the most important argument against outsourcing is that performing and optimizing techniques create better researchers.

On paper, most molecular techniques are fairly simple. It’s been described to me as a ‘science of faith’, mixing colorless liquids together and hoping for the right result! The most difficult part of molecular research is troubleshooting, and that’s why experience is so valuable. Skilled researchers know all the little tips and tricks to increase their chances of success. If this work is done commercially, lab staff will miss out on problem solving experience which is vital to their professional growth. Experienced research staff are also a very valuable resource for individual labs and even for research in general. Apart from a wealth of knowledge to contribute, skilled staff are also able to properly train new lab members.

How to Get Started

If you’ve decided that outsourcing research is for you, make sure you find a company that fits your needs.  Look for a company with reliable service, quick turnaround and reasonable prices. Bear in mind that to some extent, you’ll need to compromise between price and time frame. Express services are usually more expensive!

However, sales reps are often open to providing discounts if you submit several projects. Don’t be afraid to ask for bulk discounts, it can save you quite a bit of money in the long run if you identify a good company and stick with them.

It’s important to note that outsourcing research doesn’t always involve a large corporate organization. Many academic institutions have fee-for-service cores for viral vector production, bioinformatics, sequencing and more. Prices are usually reasonable and turnaround time can be very rapid indeed. Make sure to check if your institution or other institutions in your area offer these types of services. Universities often don’t do a good job of publicizing these facilities, and researchers may not even be aware that they exist. Also, check Science Exchange to see if any labs are providing the service you’re interested in.

So, should you outsource? The answer to this question depends on the work to be done, the project, available funds and the lab in which the project is based. It can be scary and expensive to send your experiment away. But your time is worth it, isn’t it?

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