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Running your Lab on a Shoestring Budget

We live in challenging times for academic biomedical research. The success rates for research grants have declined precipitously over the years. Under these circumstances, it is never too soon to take proactive measures to protect your research budget in the event of a funding lapse. We usually know months ahead of time when grant support is expiring. The slow fade will allow you to prepare for austerity and the difficult challenges ahead.

Just because the money stops, it doesn’t mean that your research must come to an end. There are some important steps to take that will allow you to wield some measure of control over the situation and continue your research program in a positive way, at least until the next funding cycle.

Buy Ahead

Buy non-perishable items with the last of your grant funds and store them—just as squirrels store acorns for the winter. There are a lot of useful lab items that can last for years. I tend to buy cases of pipets, white lab paper, test tubes, cell culture dishes, slides, and powdered chemicals. These come in very handy during the lean times.

Request Free Samples

Some research supply companies are very willing to send free samples, especially if you mention a new product or a new application for one of their existing products. The small amount of reagent included in the sample may be all that you need to complete your line of experimentation, without breaking your budget. In return, thank the company by writing a positive review on their website, or sharing data from your positive control that they can use for marketing purposes. Companies also appreciate references from peer-reviewed articles that result from using the product. It’s a win-win arrangement for both of you.

Shop Wisely to Keep Your Budget

As soon as an item is designated “lab supply,” the price skyrockets. Let’s look at an example. One 25-foot roll of aluminum foil costs nearly $20.00 (plus shipping) from a lab supply company. You can find the same roll of foil for $2.00 at your local supermarket as you buy your weekly groceries. I generally buy foil, plastic wrap, cotton swabs, and (even) hydrogen peroxide this way. It may not seem like much, but these small savings add up over time to save your budget.

Make From Scratch

Those ready-made commercial buffers are expensive because of the labor costs involved and the weight of the liquid being shipped to your door. For mere pennies, you can make your own buffers from scratch using the powdered chemicals that you bought before your grant support ended. If you find yourself lacking an important ingredient, check around with the neighboring labs or write an appeal to the University listserv. If you helped others when your coffers were full, your colleagues will have the chance to reciprocate.

Be a Polite Vulture

Sadly, in these cash-strapped times, many labs are closing due to lack of funds. When this happens, Associate Deans will sometimes prop the lab door open and let in neighboring scientists to inherit glassware, chemicals and small pieces of equipment. Ideally, this phenomenon happens after the PI and lab personnel have left the premises. If lab members are still there, it can be awkward unless they are actively involved in the distribution. My best advice is to tread lightly. You’ll know when the timing is right. Thanks to “polite vulturing,” I haven’t had to buy glass bottles or graduated cylinders in many years.

Teach Students for Class Credit

The loss of salary slots does not necessarily mean an empty lab. Most Universities have programs for undergraduate students or medical students who want lab experience and will participate in research opportunities for course credit. The right student, proper training and a good project can result in abstracts and publications from your lab that benefit both you and the student. Additional publications also demonstrate the feasibility of your experimental plans and hopefully translate to more successful grant proposals in the future.

Collaborate

Hopefully, throughout your training and research career, you have cultivated a network of friendly scientists in your field. Most likely, many of them are in similar funding crises, or are looking to cut costs. Now is the time to join forces and collaborate on joint projects. Make the most of the existing resources in your lab. You do the histology and they’ll do the PCR. In the end, you have co-authored publications and the potential for strong grant proposals, leading to more funds for both of you.

As you can see, there is much you can do that will not only mitigate the damage of funding lapses, but will also allow you to thrive and even expand your research activities. So often, we give kudos to those who garner multi-million dollar grants; but let’s be just as impressed by labs that can stretch limited resources and do more with less. With a positive attitude and some creative lab management, you too can bridge the funding gaps and continue to reap the benefits of a satisfying academic research career.

Please feel free to comment on how you save money in the lab!

1 Comment

  1. Bryan Crawford on February 9, 2017 at 7:18 pm

    I’ve been running my lab on a shoestring for my entire career and have made extensive use of most of these strategies (fortunately, in Canada, the PI’s salary is usually not supported by research grants, but taking on extra teaching when you’re between research grants can still be a good strategy – you might be able to negotiate teaching relief when you need it later).

    More generally, I think the costs of research can often be reduced without reducing the insight generated by using a less expensive model system. If you’re investigating basic biology, you don’t need to use mice or mammalian tissue culture cells; try zebrafish or flies or insect culture cells.

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