One of the most overlooked aspects of academic science by graduate students and postdocs is the actual cost of conducting science in an academic lab. Before we take a look at what an average molecular biology lab costs to run, it is first best to frame the discussion in terms of running a small business. Academic labs produce a product … research published in the primary literature. This product produces revenue … grant money from various government and private agencies. To produce the product, academic labs must hire people (graduate students, postdocs, or technicians), they must purchase supplies and services, and they must pay their rent and utilities (which is usually done through indirects from an awarded grant).
If we take an average-sized molecular biology lab with 1 technician, 6 graduate students, and 2 postdocs, we can begin to understand the general costs associated with the science.
A typical technician will cost $40-65,000 per year in salary and benefits depending upon experience. Each graduate student will cost about $40-50,000 per year including stipend, benefits, and tuition. Each postdoc will cost roughly $50-65,000 per year in salary and benefits depending upon years of experience. The principal investigator must also cover a portion of their salary, and this can range from $30-200,000 based on years of experience and amount required by their particular department. In our scenario using the lowest estimates, salaries and benefits overall will cost the average-sized molecular biology lab $410,000.
Supplies, services, and reagents can add an additional $75-200,000 based on whether animal costs are incurred. Thus, an average-sized molecular biology lab with 9 researchers will require at least $500,000 per year in grant funds to support their research efforts.
That is two modular R01s from NIH at $250,000 per year, three NSF grants at $150,000 per year, one R01 plus considerable training grant support, one R01 plus training grant support and some private funding. However the money comes, it is a considerable amount.
To acquire $500,000 per year in funding means that the lab has to be fairly productive. And it should be, as most of that money is taxpayer dollars or funds from donors and we have a great responsibility to use that money wisely. A student who spends on average 5 years in graduate school will minimally cost $250,000 to train. A postdoc who spends 5 years in the position minimally cost $300,000.
What degree of productivity in terms of papers would you expect from those numbers if you were a taxpayer or donor? As a graduate student or postdoc, do you think about how much science you are productively conducting in relation to the cost of your training? Do you discuss the business aspect of science with your PIs?
Talking money is always a touchy subject, but the reality is that science is an expensive enterprise and being savvy about how much it costs to run a lab will make you much more aware of the efforts required to keep a lab funded and productive.