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The Thrifty Lab


It's a fact of scientific life that there are never as many funds to go around as everyone would like. There are always labs that are scraping through grants, hoping to finish the work and put together another proposal before the money dries up, and other labs that fear being in that position. Added to that cycle are the whims of the economy and how money is allocated to funding agencies.

While the 2011 US National Institutes of Health budget hasn't yet been set, President Obama has asked for a 3.3 percent increase, which would bring the total to about $32.9 billion, and NIH Director Francis Collins recently noted that it's unlikely that Congress will do better than Obama's proposal in funding biomedical research. With the president's proposed increase, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology estimates that NIH may only fund 35,202 grants in 2011 — down from 2010's 39,579.

"We see those really sad and sometimes angry letters from principal investigators who, after long periods of funding, are finding that NIH as a source of funds is ending," says Walter Schaffer, the senior advisor for extramural research at NIH's Office of Extramural Research. "It's a very competitive environment."

Budgets are tight the world over as governments from Greece to Germany consider austerity plans to keep their own deficits in check. In the United Kingdom plans for a new biomedical informatics research institute seem shaky as the new government focuses on its budget deficit.

While the stimulus act pumped money into, and rejuvenated, biomedical research in the US, it was only a short-term solution. "A lot of us, me included, are very worried about what's going to happen approximately a year from now. Everything was two-year awards or less," says Steven Salzberg at the University of Maryland. "It was shortsighted, actually, and Congress is that way. What they should have done ... was applied all this funding, but they shouldn't have said it's all two-year awards. That's just not how science works."

As those funds are used up, research labs will have to collectively tighten their belts, manage what funds they do have better, and do all they can to keep their labs running. To make it through lean times, researchers will need to look for ways to save money without sacrificing quality.

Some will turn to colleagues or core labs for help. But tough times may also bring out a researcher's crafty side, or send others running for the science-shop version of a thrift store.

"I'm constantly faced by things like, 'How am I going to keep everybody funded a year from now, two years from now?' You have to apply for grants way before people are going to run out of money," Salzberg says. "Because it takes a year, if everything goes well, to get the money."

"It's tough. We're in such a tight economic situation. Every place, both at the federal government and state level, meaning state institutions, are really hurting. I know the privates are as well," adds Lynne Chronister, the director of sponsored programs at the University of Washington. "I think that being more budget conscious, perhaps, than PIs have been in the past [will help]."

Budgeting funds

First, researchers need a budget to stretch — and that goes all the way back to applying for funds when they have to specify how much they think their project will cost. To come up with that magic number — neither too high nor too low, but just right — researchers have to consider labor, including their own, their students', technicians', and postdocs', as well as overhead, consumables, and machine costs. "Trying to find the right amount is absolutely critical because it reflects on whether or not the PI knows enough about the project to know how much it will cost to do it," says UW's Chronister.

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Consulting a department administrator can be helpful in finding that Goldilocks number, she adds, noting that what different universities, colleges, and departments offer varies widely. At UW, as with many large institutions, there is no central support for help in building a budget, but "what we do is review the budget, as opposed to building the budget," she says. Smaller institutions, though, often do have centralized budgeting help.

In addition, Chronister says that her office offers training programs for faculty and staff. UW offers courses called "Building a Basic Budget" as well as "Building an Advanced Budget" for more complicated projects. Recently, she says, the university has begun to offer more of these classes, as some department administrators who would normally have helped faculty have been laid off due to the economy, leaving more faculty members on their own to devise their budgets.

The courses have been wildly popular. "We started offering them again about the first of April, thinking 'Well, we'll offer them about once a month' and we had so much response that we offered 11 classes and have filled them all up between the first of April and June," Chronister says. "We realized that there really was an ongoing need for this because we have lost so many people who had the expertise to do this."

Another approach for stretching a dollar is to team up with a colleague or mentor and share funds. This is a particularly good approach for young investigators, Maryland's Salzberg says. "What I would definitely recommend is to try to find the best researcher they can who is already well-funded who is in their area and partner with them," he says. "You don't have to be a PI right away. Go in with someone else on their grants and that's an excellent way to get started. ... Find a colleague who is well-funded, and he or she may go in with you on a grant."

Once researchers have secured funds — which is no mean feat — they have to keep track of what they've spent, not only to file reports with the funding agency, but also to be sure their lab is in the black. This is done "with some difficulty," Salzberg says.

Each month, he says, a grant administrator sends him a report of how much money is in each grant, how much is left until it runs out, and who is supported under each grant. "That's basic numbers, and then from that I'm the one who knows if the people are going to stay on this grant or if they are going to have to move to another grant, who's graduating or who is finishing their postdocs," Salzberg says. "I also have some research scientists in my group who are long-term and they are never going to leave or there is no plan for them to finish, so I have to make sure way before those grants run out that I've applied for funding that will support them."

If you can't keep all those figures straight in your head, there are a few options beyond Excel and Quicken. One company, Northern Lights Software, offers a Grant Manager software package. "Our software handles the situations where you might have multiple awards from multiple sources that you need to track and report back on. You can basically create as many grant entries in the system as you need," says Northern Lights product manager Pertti Karjalainen. "And then any purchases that people make, they can be distributed across many different grants. Let's say you buy a big microscope or something that costs a lot of money — you can pull money from different grants to pay for it."

"It keeps track of money spent for a purpose rather than money spent from a grant, and, of course, those two tie into each other in the end," he adds.

Another option is Grant Tracker, which Stanford University's Kendric Smith developed to do the accounting of his own NIH grants. Smith is now retired and the software is freely available on his Web page, though it hasn't been updated in about 10 years.

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To the core

Sometimes keeping to that strict budget can be as simple as taking advantage of resources already available at research institutes. Many, if not all, have core lab facilities where researchers can outsource some of their work, having it done often for less money than if they ran the samples themselves. Core services run the gamut from genotyping to mouse facilities to informatics and, at some institutions, glassblowing and biomanufacturing services are also available.

"Over the last 10 years and in the foreseeable future, cutting-edge technology requires very highly priced instruments, and also the staff members who need to be fully trained. Duplicating those in individual labs would be not a realistic approach," says Ryan Kim, deputy director of the genome center at the National Center for Genome Resources, which offers services including next-gen sequencing and genotyping.

Core labs have better purchasing power, adds Deborah Grove at the Huck Institutes of Life Science at Pennsylvania State University. They can buy consumables at far lower prices than individual labs because they buy them in greater quantities and at more frequent intervals. And it could save researchers from having to buy their own large, expensive machine, such as a sequencer.

Cores also have experience, having done similar experiments many times — personnel there know the protocols and the science very well — and having kept up with technological advances. "I've been a core director for 14 years and basically I know how to look for a lot of ways to keep costs lower. I'm always working on more efficient methods," Grove says. "And along with that, I think it's necessary to update the researcher — he may be using older methods — and bringing in new technology and letting him know that it's here and can save him money and time." Her genomics core facility offers next-gen sequencing, Sanger sequencing, genotyping assays, and oligonucleotide synthesis on a fee-for-service basis.

"I think the sooner they actually talk to core facility personnel, it would be really helpful because we can budget and the core lab can help them identify what would be a critical step and what would be the most cost-efficient approach," Kim adds.

Getting crafty

As an alternative, researchers can embrace their creative side. Throughout the literature, there are sporadic mentions of people using that wedding registry staple — a salad spinner — as a centrifuge. Rockefeller University's Jean-Laurent Casanova used one as a graduate student to take advantage of its efficiency. Indeed, two undergraduate students at Rice University fashioned one to separate blood in clinics in the developing world.

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Another version uses an Easter egg-dyeing toy. Bonnie Barrilleaux, a postdoc who studies Myc's role in regulating stem cells in Paul Knoepfler's lab at the University of California, Davis, got an idea for the lab when she was dyeing Easter eggs with her younger cousins. They were using an Easter egg spinner in which an egg is placed in the center and paint along the inside walls. When spun, like a salad spinner, the egg comes out looking tie-dyed. After the holiday, the Easter egg spinner was headed for the trash when Barrilleaux rescued it, repurposing it as an ersatz mini-centrifuge. "I thought, 'I don't want to throw this away.' I just immediately thought it looked like a centrifuge, so I thought I would try using it to spin things in the lab," Barrilleaux says.

She didn't have to change much. "I needed to put a sort of inner basket made out of a two-liter bottle and some pieces of pipette-tip racks. That was about it," she says. Her labmates thought it was a cool idea, she adds, though they weren't sure about its utility. "Tragically, this is actually one of my less successful attempts at making things out of trash in the lab, but this is the most fun-looking," she says, adding that she has used it a few times.

Barrilleaux has also fashioned tubing adaptors out of pipette pieces, and made PCR setup trays out of disposal pipette tip racks. "You can fill it with ice and it works just like the kind of PCR setup trays that you keep in the freezer," she says. She uses the creations almost daily.

To search for ways to save money, Barrilleaux suggests that researchers take a look at what they are using and the cost of those items. "I recently realized that we were buying low-binding cell culture dishes for doing cultures where the cells don't stick down, and I realized that if I coated my own dishes with agarose instead of buying these special dishes, the price went from $10 a dish to 50 cents a dish," she says. "We just had to make a list of what we were spending a lot of money on and figure out if there were alternatives for any of the things." And those savings add up.

The thrift option

If arts and crafts aren't a strength, researchers can also browse the scientific equivalent of a consignment shop or tag sale. A number of companies sell used laboratory equipment. Alliance Analytical, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based company, sells surplus items from labs, instruments and tools from closing labs, and even demo products. The items are refurbished, and come with a minimum of a 90-day warranty. "We go around inventorying entire labs and giving them offers for their surplus equipment that they no longer need. And we also purchase entire closing labs," says Chase Heibel, a service and operation coordinator at the company.

Alliance Analytical doesn't focus on any particular type of instrument — it sells anything analytical, Heibel says. On its website are listings for an Affymetrix GeneChip Scanner, Beckman Coulter's Biomek automation system, and an Applied Biosystems API 3000 LC/MS/MS, among other equipment.

"On average, our products are over 55 percent off the original list price," he says. In addition, the company offers leasing, rent-to-own, and trade-in deals.

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Other spots to look for used lab equipment include LabX — an online forum to buy and sell items — and even eBay. An Illumina BeadStation, BioRad Molecular Imager FX, and an Amersham Biosciences Mega BACE 4500 DNA sequencer were all recently up for grabs on the online auction site.

Closer to home, many universities offer surplus sales at which excess items from around the school are sold to either the university community or the public, sometimes by auction. At those sales researchers can pick up anything from filing cabinets to desks to printers — even the odd piano or car. More scientifically oriented items are also for sale. Colorado State University's Surplus Property office currently features a Cepheid Smart Cycler and the office's Craigslist page recently offered a Spectronic Digital Spectrophotometer.

Other sources

No matter how much scrimping and saving researchers do, sometimes the only thing needed to stay afloat is more money. Applying for more grants should always be done earlier rather than later to try to keep the cash flowing in. But sometimes those renewals or new proposals just don't make it above the payline. That could mean it's time to explore funding sources beyond NIH or NSF.

Maryland's Salzberg says he has funding from the US Department of Agriculture and has gotten money from the Department of Homeland Security for his studies on pathogenic bacteria. He is also looking into Department of Energy funding — the DOE's Joint Genome Institute received $69 million for 2010 — but doesn't have any funding from the agency yet.

"My main goal is to get funding that allows us to continue to do basic research on the most exciting questions that we decide that we want to work on. If funding is short, you find that ... a lot of money is really targeted at specific problems and sometimes people are not so interested in those problems. But if they need the money, they'll work on it," Salzberg says.

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But there's no need to stop with government agencies. Foundations, too, dole out money in the genomics arena. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on diseases affecting developing nations, has funded genomics-related work, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund has a program in translational medicine, and Susan G. Komen for the Cure has funding opportunities for research on targeted therapies as well as translational research.

Salzberg cautions that alternative funding sources can be more of an administrative burden. "But if you need the money, you have to do that," he says.

"I think that principal investigators these days have to get creative in terms of funding, looking at foundations or thinking more about overlapping sources of support so that if the NIH grant isn't funded, they still have some income to keep their labs alive," OED's Schaffer adds.

At UW, Chronister says the sponsored program office is trying to help faculty find other funding sources, including from industry. "We are encouraging and assisting the faculty in trying to find leveraged funds, looking for alternative sources. We're doing an awful lot of outreach to industry," she says. "Trying to find alternative revenue sources to continue the research is going to be extremely critical."

If the situation is more dire and immediate, researchers can turn to bridge funding as a sort of last-ditch attempt to keep their lab going until the next grant rolls in.

In the past, NIH has offered Director's Bridge Awards through a program that allows people who just missed the payline to receive some funds to keep their research afloat while they strengthen their grant applications. "We had $93 million with which to consider those kinds of awards in the past," Schaffer says. "I think a lot of people found those really useful. Many of them were able to use that money to keep their labs alive, to collect some additional information, and then submit a new competing renewal that ultimately was funded. It was a great program."

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Though the NIH Bridge Awards program wasn't funded for 2010, the stimulus act was a sort of bridge funding program for the entire biomedical field. "Many of the institutes went down the payline anyway to pick up those applications," Schaffer says of how recovery act funds were distributed.

Schaffer is hopeful that the bridge funding program will return. He notes that though it is not funded in the proposed 2011 budget, it is still mentioned as a sort of placeholder for future budgets.

He also adds that some NIH institutes may be giving out bridge funding outside of the director's program. "If a principal investigator doesn't quite make payline but the project looks promising and reviews well, it's worth calling the program official to talk about bridge funding," he says.

NSF's Jane Silverthorne adds that there isn't a formal bridge funding program there, but it is sometimes available at the programmatic level.

It's also worth speaking with officials at the institutional level. The University of Washington offers bridge funding, Chronister says. Researchers there apply to the vice provost for it. More and more researchers have needed bridge funding in the past few years, she says, adding that if researchers with bridge funds receive a grant before the bridge funds run out, UW asks that they give the money that's left back "so that we can share it with someone else who is in a needy situation, and frequently they do," she says.

Salzberg says that while Maryland doesn't offer any standard bridge funding, he would try to help researchers at his center if they came to him, and that scientists also help each other through lean times. In his experience, people who needed that help would speak to their chair and to their colleagues to work out a deal. "Someone might say, 'Could you support my student from your grants for two months? And then I'll support one of your students for a couple of months after my grant comes in,'" he says.

At his center, Salzberg says, "We haven't done it but if someone came to me and said, 'I've got a new grant coming in, but for one month my postdoc would be out of salary,' I could find a way."

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