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How to start a lab when funds are tight (nature.com)
138 points by okket 36 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments

A major problem is that it is time consuming for researchers to comparison shop and contact sales reps. We built Lab Spend (https://labspend.com) which has a pricing search engine for supplies and chemicals to give people an idea if their quote is fair.

"On Amazon, a $100 roll of paraffin film sells for around $25." Seems reasonable

Price Distribution: https://imgur.com/a/YobZnm2

List Price: $71.27 USD

"Can$20,000 ultra-low-temperature freezer" depends on model, but likely overpaid

Price Distribution: https://imgur.com/a/jZer27n

List Price: $20,663.90 USD

This is really cool! I hadn't heard of you guys before but will definitely be using your service. I can attest to the fact that comparison shopping is a huge time suck in science.

The one exception to the importance of comparison shopping is probably at the very start of a lab. Oftentimes, PIs will negotiate with large suppliers for massive start-up discounts in exchange for buying lots of equipment from a single supplier. (Not relevant to me, but just thought people should know that that is a thing that happens).

Great point that there are new lab and volume discounts. Our data is showing that you should always be negotiating and that pricing is still independent of volume. We've seen cases of companies with 1/10th the spend of others getting better prices by product and overall.

This line from the article made me smile...

"Besides, there’s often no need for aggressive negotiation tactics; most suppliers will accommodate reasonable requests to secure the business of a newly hired faculty member, notes Lisa Witte, president of Fisher Scientific, a lab-supply company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania."

Of course a person in sales is going to tell you not to negotiate aggressively with them.

That's a very useful tool! Part of the reason that we launched the Atomwise AIMS program http://www.atomwise.com/aims-awards/ was to address the cost of compounds, in addition to the cost of equipment. We use our deep neural networks to pick 72 compounds (out of millions) that we buy, QC, plate, and ship to the PI for free.

Wow fantastic website. Not only useful for researchers, but also for hardware companies that rely on similar equipment.

I will definitely bring this to the attention of my PI.

i'm glad there was an article written about this sociological phenomenon in the sciences.

begging, sharing, bidding, _stealing_, fixing, and making do were the standard in every "poorly funded" (read: extremely well funded in comparison to many others) academic lab and every "poorly funded" (read: fairly well funded) private biotech company that i have worked with. i can only imagine what it is like to work in a place that isn't very well funded, given the level of stuff that was happening where i have been.

you can tell when grants are approved and when new rounds of funding are raised because there's a new round of fresh equipment that shows up in the lab -- then, later, the hand-me-downs and salvaged gear shows up between funding rounds.

it isn't uncommon to see equipment in action that is 20 years old. one place even had an analysis instrument from 1968, but i would say that is an outlier. there are also a few places who pride themselves on over-spending on all-new top of the line equipment, but in my experience these are the massive pharma companies where money is not as much of a concern as equipment uniformity and supply chain.

the result of all the old/salvaged equipment, of course, is that all of these old things need maintenance and break down, typically at the worst possible moment. tensions over resources are also the norm within organizations, in my experience. there isn't always enough to go around, yet people are obligated to share with their neighbors when they're in a pinch... and, on aggregate, scientists have a habit of always being in a pinch.

interestingly, there was also a group that i worked with local to boston (https://www.boslab.org/) which made a small educational lab exclusively with auctioned/salvaged/fixed gear, and did so extremely cheaply. they had sufficient means to do basic molecular bio experiments, which was really cool. the trouble is that consumables are going to be extremely expensive no matter what, so savings on capital are not as significant as they may seem.

honestly, at this point the culture of austerity and recycling in the sciences seems ingrained in a lot of people, particularly PIs from the US. giving them more money isn't going to make the problem go away because they are accustomed to hoarding their cash as much as possible. they don't know if or when the next grant will be approved, or if it is going to be for as much money as they really need. this habit works very well in certain biotech companies, too -- often, VCs don't understand that the cost savings might have consequences.

as someone who has been involved with founding several, starting a lab is time consuming, but not particularly difficult. there's probably a business opportunity somewhere in there. maybe something like assembling sets of second-hand / repaired equipment and selling them as a package to new labs.

While only briefly mentioned in the article, theory and analysis of existing data are a lot cheaper than new experiments.

I am a PhD student in engineering right now. I've found that most of what I would have liked to measure was already available in the literature, but the papers of interest took some digging to find. I will be doing some experiments, but they will be very targeted at filling in gaps. Most researchers seem to think they are targeting gaps, but (in my field at least) literature reviews are typically not detailed enough to truly know where the cutting edge is. Researchers often end up reinventing the wheel.

I also have extended existing data by taking advantage of the properties of a special case to get some information most would consider very difficult to obtain. (Basically, I use a proxy which has a known strong correlation to the quantity of interest in the special case. It doesn't work outside of the special case.) Most avoid getting this information because either the researcher chooses a bad proxy, or knows how to get the information more directly but dislikes the method they know (because it would be a lot of work).

I supplement existing data with sanity checks on existing theories too. In fact, I will be presenting a paper at a conference in a few weeks where the entire motivation of the paper was to criticize an earlier theory which fails many sanity checks. (Wrong in the limits, wrong trend, lacks a necessary functional dependency, etc.)

The remainder of my time is spent developing mathematical models. Math is cheap and I think most researchers in the physical sciences would benefit from more of it.

If only NIH agreed.

“You know what we need? More funding for shitty underpowered studies in immunocompromised mice, and less funding for analysis & methods work. Besides, if they’re any good, AmaGooFaceSoft will just steal them anyways.”

Ha ha only serious. You are 1000% correct, and I can only hope that NIH will one day discover the same thing. Instead of destroying working APIs.

> Instead of destroying working APIs.

There's a reason I hoard data. Data becomes inaccessible too frequently.

Second this. I remember back when open access or reproducibility was not a thing, I used some little app written in Java to "steal" data from scanned figures of other's papers datum by datum, because they just wouldn't put the data in an online supplement or a repository. I do this less often nowadays because suddenly the community becomes more aware of data sharing.

This is a good article. However, in the US there is a flip side to hardware purchase optimization -- labor costs. It is sad (or infuriating, if I paid for it) to hear a lab worker boast how he saved $200 on wiring up some monster one-time contraption instead of buying off the shelf and it only took him two days; great, huh?

With all loads (and his $1 salary probably costs 2.5-4$ total) he just wasted at least $500. Just a data point, almost certainly not applicable to poorer countries.

agreed entirely. labor costs are nearly always discounted in the life sciences from my experience.

there's two origins of this phenomena. the first is that people are accustomed to having graduate students, or worse, being graduate students in the sciences. people abuse their time and treat it as though it is valueless, and that habit persists in them when they become leaders. then, the habit percolates downward to people who were never graduate students. viola, you now have an entire group of people with no conception of opportunity cost or labor costs.

the second origin is that scientists who are managers typically would rather have something "just work" (read: be jerry rigged and not work very well) than have to purchase a solution. this is another holdover from the graduate student days. buying solutions is expensive, and you still need to spend time to set it up and potentially troubleshoot. getting someone to make a one-time solution that is a totally incomprehensible mess is preferable if it is cheaper. besides, the manager scientist doesn't have to deal with the external time cost to their staff.

the sad thing is that all of these people involved are very smart and far-too-hard working. these are great traits to have. but they do not always result in the best solution. working hard is not always worth the economic cost to the group... nor is developing a one-shot ingenious solution. terrifyingly, few lab managers or leaders outside of big pharma seem to understand these problems.

It's not just the life sciences. Time is generally undervalued in physics, too.

The most-successful scientists, though, have an excellent perception of the value of time. They may not perceive it that way explicitly, but their choices of what is and is not worth working on amount to valuing time.

That depends on the place. Depending on the workload, if you have lots of salaried folks with work that is variable, you're getting a cost savings on acquisition and picking up some morale. Buying that $200 part may also result in spending $3,000 in labor for the bureaucracy process.

If everyone is always engaged with some other activity, and you're hiring people to do miscellaneous tasks, that's a different story.

As someone that works in a high energy particle physics lab, I have a slightly different perspective on this. There does increasingly seem to be a sort of anti-not-invented-here bias to externally buying off-the-shelf solutions, this has resulted in lots of equipment in storage that simply does not do what it was specified for, essentially expensive paper weights. It is also causing a lack of knowledge and skills development for new scientists and engineers. Big problems are looming as lots of our scientists and engineers with their 30+ years of knowledge are retiring soon, the new generation need to be allowed to develop knowledge and expertise though their own designs, not just buy stuff in. Imagine if we had said to the authors of Art of Electronics in their early days, hey guys don't bother designing all this instrumentation, we'll just buy it in from National Instruments, what a loss that would have been.

I agree with this in principle and it also mirrors my own experience during a PhD program: time is cheap, tinkering is learning, etc. This is especially true in academia research, which is, in most disciplines, helped by wiring things up in ingenious ways. Practicing those skills comes very useful. Robert Wood probably would not become such a great experimental physicist if he did not tinker with hardware as a youngster.

The problem is that this approach does not scale: you can build everything from scratch, but beyond certain complexity you need existing subcomponents. Nuclear physicists do not need to learn gear tooth shapes and build their own servos. And in my experience people are bad at making the decision when to stop building and start buying.

Maybe a better approach is something like 80/20 split: spend 20% of time building own designs and instrumentation and 80% on target research. And those who are really good at building from scratch and love it can spend more time on it.

Interesting. My PI in undergrad had several R01s and we were swimming in funds but their spending categories were restricted. $50000 to us on labor may have been worth it for $25000 in equipment, for instance. He did, however, refuse to tap the large startup fund, which could have been spent however he wanted and instead saved it for a rainy day. On the other hand, we had a very strong "core/shared" support and could basically rent equipment. With the amount of money he was spending on the core, we had a huge influence on the equipment purchased. Also, we collaborated with other groups helping their projects, gaining access to their equipment for our projects. Basically, trading our labor for their equipment.

Strikes me as a principal-agent problem. He's not responsible for the budget that encompasses his salary.

True but good to keep this in mind too, for the few times when DIY will be the only left solution. I suspect some people to never do something if it's not on the shelves.

Not a plug, but here in miami we have a co-working type of shared wet lab space at UMiami [1]. It is open to anyone, they can rent bench space and use all the equipment. Happy to connect anyone to the team that runs it

[1] https://cic.com/miami-lab-pricing/

Im about to start building a lab in my new engineering academic position after several years in pretty well funded industrial lab. While I’m posturing for a donation of some critical equipment starting from scratch is daunting but also exciting.

A part of what I want to achieve is the ability to replicate the types of measurement that require these extremely expensive pieces of equipment in a low cost facile manner. Students spend so much time building or setting up their rigs that there is often little time to take meaningful data as time runs out. I want my students to spend most of their time immersed in their data and how it fits with theory and not fine tuning some over-complicated proprietary tool.

As an aside I t’s surprising how much you can now get on Amazon. Whereas previously you’d have to enquire after a quotation and wait days just for a reply now you can just order direct.

One of the sites to buy from that is not listed in this article is govdeals.com You generally have to go pick up the item so a lot of it is regional but you will find lab equipment there from universities, k-12 schools, and other government programs.

Cheap second hand lab equipment can be great, but a lot of the DIY bio stuff is garbage. It means to improve things by making it cheaper but often it trades off predictable results for ambiguous ones, or safety for unsafe ones.

Have labs ever been started when funds were not tight?

Yeah all the time. Many universities will include a budget for new lab equipment as part of a professors startup package.

Recent institutional offers of start-up support (excluding salary) for PhDs averaged $800k (range $500k to $1.4m). Start-up offers for MD/PhDs averaged $800k ($100k - $2.1m). This money can be used for equipment, consumables, personnel costs, and professional travel. (https://www.bwfund.org/career-tools/academic-tenure-track-of...)

Sure. Of the two professors I worked for as a postdoc, one started a lab where funds were not tight, the other did. The main difference was the first one brought a lawyer to their hiring negotiation, and get several concessions, including a huge startup package, promises of IT upgrades, and lab space. The second one did not and I ended up running cables in the drop ceiling at night to get decent bandwidth.

I suppose HHMI investigators already have labs when they get picked by HHMI, but HHMI funds very nicely.

many HHMI investigators are selected in high school.

Really? Do you have any more information because I find that incredibly difficult to believe that HHMI is reviewing 16 year olds (on what basis?), waiting two decades for them to go through undergrad, grad school, postdoc(s), and open a lab.

Sure, I know about 10 HHMI investigators. Of that, 8 of them were contacted by HHMI after they won their (regional or national) science fair.

They all became early investigators with funding through college and grad school. Students with HHMI fellowships in grad school could generally join any lab they wanted, because their professor didn't have to pay their salary or support.

Doesn't this make sense? HHMI plays a long game (centuries) and they are competing with other people for the best candidates, so it makes sense that they're capturing hearts and minds as early as possible and investing in them long term.

To be clear, are we talking about these HHMI investigators? https://www.hhmi.org/scientists/browse?kw=&&field_scientist_...

I’m still having a hard time believing that someone “scouted” Richard Axel in 1960 and threw his name in a file with a note saying that he should be funded—-but only a quarter-century later.

I can imagine that they congratulate winners and perhaps invite them to apply for one of HHMI’s early career programs, but I would be amazed and disappointed if people were “locking down” investigator status at 16. Success that early depends a lot on having access to the right opportunity and environment.

Oh look some of my previous advisors are on that list they're the people who told me that.

Let me explain where I'm confused.

When I was 20, I participated in a (funded) fairly prestigious summer workshop. This lead to a grant for a year of independent research from the same funders, after which I went to grad school. As a postdoc, the same sponsors funded one project of mine, then another, and a third is under review right now. However, there's no formal "pipeline" here, no midnight meeting in a spooky room where I was promised funding way down the line, long after I finally grew a beard and had it turn grey. Instead, this has continued for as long as it has because our interests have remained aligned and my collaborators and I have done pretty good work. If we have a few down years, the funding will probably dry up and someone, possibly even someone totally new to this ecosystem, will get it instead.

That said, there is an obvious Matthew Effect: once you get one award, you can list it on the next application. Now you have two awards, which is more impressive, and you list them both on your third application, and so on. There are other, less tangible benefits of being visible, getting face time with program managers, and so on. My impression of the HHMI Investigator program was that it was much more like this--early awards open doors and may make it more likely that someone eventually becomes an Investigator, but there's not a formal pipeline that reaches back to high school.

You seem to be suggesting that HHMI identifies high school science contest winners with the express intent of funding them later as independent investigators. This is what I'm skeptical about. I can certainly believe HHMI can identify smart people and that (some) smart people continue to be smart throughout their career.

This is not true. There is a difference between all the other HHMI fellowships, professorships, etc and the HHMI investigator position. The latter usually requires ~5 years of being a professor before you can even apply.

If you look at the numbers, nearly all HHMI investigators started with fellowships as early funding.

All HHMI investigators went to high school as well. The reverse is not true. Getting funding in college through an HHMI fellowship is a terrible predictor of being an HHMI investigator. They are completely independent in their selection and the programs that HHMI for education fund many orders of magnitude more people than their investigator program.

That's definitely inconsistent with the description given to me by 8 HHMI investigators. Each of them said they had a continuity of program managers from their initial contact in high school.

I know they have science lectures and things for students (annually released as a DVD) but I never heard of high school-selected investigators when I was working for them.

all the HHMI people I know were recruited in high school after they won science fairs.

Huh. Neat.

How do you mean?

My lab was pretty well funded right from the start. A combination of early new investigator grants and generous startup packages made us worry little about money at the start. Mid career is thought to be the major crunch.

Step one: go to SciHub to ensure that you're not wasting a bunch of $ on something that should have been free in the first place.

Not that you'll read that in Nature.

It's not a taboo topic but quite a few of those read as indictments rather than support. Though some of them are definitely advocating for freely sharing research and using 'piracy' sites.

I'm not sure whether you are joking or not, but how to get paper is never a concern for a PI in academia.

Correction: in rich country academia.

Go check up on how many people credit being able to finish their studies due to SciHub being available to them when the institutions they are affiliated with did not have the funds to be able to stay current.

There is a tendency to conflate 'I don't have this particular problem' to 'This particular problem does not exist'.

No, I don’t mean in rich country.

First, I believe most papers already list coresspoding author’ email, which one can send a request to for a reprint. And most people would be happy to send one, and because citation is one of the important metric for how successful and influential one’s research is. Most people is happy to send one.

Second, PI is different from student for this. As a PI one basically already has some connections with people in the field. It’s likely you already know some of the authors, or your friends in the field could help you get a copy.

I don’t mean PIs would find scihub not useful, but PIs likely have other resources to help get a paper.

> First, I believe most papers already list coresspoding author’ email, which one can send a request to for a reprint.

Sure. If you have a couple of weeks to spare and you feel that disturbing the author of a paper from whatever they are working on to send you a pdf which you could just as easily fetch for yourself in a few seconds is a good way to spend both your time.

PIs tend to find SciHub very useful, even the ones in rich countries where plenty of universities are cutting costs (so sorry if that means cutting access to a critical journal for your field).

Why bother? The only time I have to email other PIs regarding their papers are when protocol steps are missing or when data has not been deposited.

And in about half of those instances, it simply reminds me why I love not relying on the “goodwill” of competitors.

> And most people would be happy to send one

Maybe if you can wait for weeks, but then again that's a maybe. You do realize how critical this is when you try to design your experiment, why even bother by then.

I'm getting a PhD at a US News top 100 University (lol), and I'm published in a journal we don't have access to.

That article never once mentioned "PI" or "Professor", not that it's even on-topic. This article is about setting up a lab on a shoestring budget (by acquiring used equipment or negotiating discounted use on communal equipment).

I don't think Step-1 for acquiring lab equipment is pirating a research article.

Just for you, the caption under the article illustration reads:

"Researchers from Ghana take part in TReND in Africa’s Advanced Open Labware workshop in Cape Town, South Africa, this April.Credit: Agnieszka Pokrywka/TReND in Africa"

How many researchers in Ghana do you think have the funds to buy research papers at $30,- per shot?

You don't have to buy them if you request a copy from the authors. The authors don't make any money when you pay to download a paper from a journal. So they'd have no reason not to send you a pdf.

And wait a few weeks to get replies, and annoy the authors by having to ask repeatedly, ... Yes it works, no it's not a great mechanism to entirely rely on. In comparison, Sci-Hub beats the official journal websites in convenience.

Now we're into matters of convenience and impatience though rather than pleas of poverty. Doesn't quite have the same weight.

I really dislike when people make arguments along the lines of "it works, why are you complaining".

It's not about convenience it's about how some of us things should be. Which is that (at the very least scientific) knowledge should be free and open and accessible and we don't see why a private company should be making huge profits (and even worse influence the direction of science) while they are offering almost nothing in return.

"knowledge should be free and open and accessible "

But it is. You just have to email the authors and wait a bit.

That's like saying that milk is free because if you visit a farm the farmer will let you milk a glass out of his cows


Personal attacks will get you banned here, so please don't do that again.


If the person just got hired to be a professor at a university, they already know how to access research articles, one way or another. However they've done it, they are well beyond this "Step-1".

If this piece were about how some of the best young software developers who just got hired by some .org have figured out frugal ways to build their own servers by using 2nd hand equipment from previous builds of Google and Amazon servers; it'd be like someone saying: "Step-1: visit piratebay.org"

false. even in extremely well-funded academic labs, journal access can be sparse. i have heard the line "i could only read the abstract for free, but..." from PIs more than a handful of times.

Not the kind of "lab" I was expecting. Being HN I assumed lab == server/network/computer playground/test environment (like a home ESXi lab).

Information technology is not the only thing that can be "hacked" on

The title immediately made me think of Walt taking stuff from his department at school. "Jesse, we've got to cook."

You should also consider whether you need to start another lab.

This is the million dollar question. If you want a long-term career in academic research, you pretty much have to strive towards running your own lab; you can’t string together 2-3 year contracts, scattered all over the globe, for your entire life. Even if you were willing to, there are all sorts of stupid institutional barriers to doing this. In particular, there’s a ridiculous bias towards funding recent PhDs and funding is very hard to find after ~4 years.

I would wager that one experienced researcher at $70k easily trumps 2-3 Masters students at $25k each. However, there are lots of mechanisms for funding studentships, but few for paying for experienced employees. The NCI had experimented with something like this, but there were maybe 100 positions total. This is a shame for many different reasons but seems depressingly unlikely to change any time soon.

You should also consider whether you need to start another lab

The incentives are the same as starting another JS framework

> Microbiologist Rebecca Shapiro faced a daunting task after starting a tenure-track job at the University of Guelph in Canada: building a laboratory from scratch, on a tight budget.

The absolute state of western higher education

> western

I didn't realized we're blessed with enormous science and education budgets outside of western world!

Seriously, it's the same old problem: when you hear about how bad things are in some first world country, please don't forget that it's still the best point in human history and one of the best places on Earth at the current moment.

Having discussed lab budgets etc with an Indian colleague just recently, I no longer feel justified to bitch about funding... possibly forever.

It was a necessary perspective check

... and yet: it's a reasonable thing to ask how much of a GDP should be spent on research funding. That the US will spend more than India (for now) isn't surprising.

It doesn't have to be better outside the west for my point to be valid.

It's expected that shitholes are behind on science and education. But countries like Canada has no excuse for wasting researchers' valuable time on scavenging around on eBay.

Nature should publish less articles about how to do X on the cheap and more articles about how the government needs to increase funding for primary research.

As one of the most prestigious journals around, or at least most well known generally, they should be using their clout to go in and bat for researchers, not constantly being reactive and defensive.

> How to start a lab when funds are tight because your faculty invests all the money in Nature subscriptions

If all the journals wouldn't use their monopolies to extract money out of the system, there would be more money left in research. Academics are so dependent on publications it's ridiculous.

I agree that I would love to see that they solve the root problems and not the symptoms.

Nature (and Science) are already constantly publishing pieces whining about government funding levels. I'm not sure what you're talking about.

Honestly, I'd rather see most of the front matter of both journals disappear in favor of more room for scientific articles.

Alternately, there is some indication that little of value would be lost if the journals themselves disappeared.

I hear there’s some sort of intertubes system to more efficiently disseminate papers for review & reading nowadays

Actually I find the high tier journals such as Nature do add value through editorials, keeping tabs on industry trends, and various programs. It's the low impact factor journals that are glorified FTPs that have to go.

Just FYI, as an author and reviewer for some of these journals, I would suggest that the value added by their news pieces can be compensated for (and not in a good way) by professional editors in pursuit of "impact". The review process becomes intensely political. As is well known, a suitably well-known senior author can get just about anything sexy enough accepted, and the referees can be easily overridden by an eager editor. Although the news divisions are editorially independent, they face a fundamental conflict of interest: biting the hand that feeds them is unlikely to lead to enhanced rations.

Nature and Science are less bad than, say, many Elsevier imprints. In most cases I feel like Nature or its daughter journal genuinely improved the manuscripts we sent them, at least the ones they published (and some they did not!). But this is also true of eLife and Genome Research. NEJM is wonderful to work with as an author, but in retrospect I sometimes wonder if they were too nice to us (Stockholm syndrome?) and have had this thought about some well-regarded specialty journals. In such cases, it is hard for the news staff to justify reporting on the underbelly.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I had a paper last year in a journal with an impact factor of 15* that was accepted in 15 minutes. It took longer to sign the copyright transfer agreements than to "review" the work. (I have the timestamps on the emails to prove it, although I'm not going to do that because one of my coauthors is an editor.) There's just no way that peer review was adding any value in that case. And yes, it has already been cited by other groups.

* Yes, IF is a silly metric. But the parallel is just too good to pass up. One minute per point of impact, I suppose.

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