14 April, 2009

Cost of Science

We all know science is expensive. Satellites and particle colliders costs tens of millions of dollars, flow cytometers cost as much as a mansion in Detroit, confocal microscopes can be had for the price of a gently used Cessna. But why is it so expensive?

I understand why large equipement is expensive. A BioRad pentaplex Q-RT-PCR thermocycler system costing $35,000 makes sense given how complex and sensitive it is. A -80C freezer costing $5,000+ makes sense given the sheer amount of materials that go into making it. But it's not just the large equipment that's so expensive. Little, common, everyday scientific supplies are also quite expensive. And disproportionately so.

Fisherbrand sterile Petri dishes cost $0.30 each at list price, and they're really only good for a single use. Acros Organics yeast extract is ~$250/kg at list price. My favorite general dissection scalpel blades (No. 22s), also only good for one use, cost $165 for just 100 blades, and that's Fisherbrand*. Reusable Fisherbrand glass pipettes are $10 each. And sure, base cell culture media are cheap (500ml RPMI $13, 500ml DMEM $4), but when you factor in the cost of adding FBS (~$500/L) to make them complete the costs add up real quick.

In a consumer market these items wouldn't cost nearly so much. 100 straight razor blades, a similar amount and grade of metal as scalpels, cost $9 on Amazon. Fleischman's yeast is $17/kg. Yes, these aren't the same exact products. They aren't specifically made for science, but they are made of similar types and quantities of materials. Does standardization of research supplies really command a 500%+ markup in price? Is the quality really that different?

This adds up to another barrier to entering biomedical research as an amateur, hobbyist, or newly minted PI. Daily disposables cost a busy lab so much money that they can quickly eat through large grants. The thing is, though, is that we're more or less at the mercy of the companies providing these products when they choose their prices. We are a small niche market, and as such the specialization of any product to fit our needs as researchers is going to cost much more than it otherwise would in a larger market.

There are 2 possible solutions to this:

1) More people need to start using scientific supplies for other uses. This will increase competition between Fisherbrand, Denville Scientific, and VWR and force them all to lower their prices. Erlenmeyer flasks are heat stable, so why not use a 2L flask to make pasta at home? Borosilicated tall beakers run about $6 each, and have the advantage of being able to measure the components of your mixed drink in milliliters. If you're worried about your weight, try the Petri dish diet, where you only get to eat a Petri dish's worth of any given food in the space of an hour, so long as that food is not lard of deep-fried chicken skin. I, for one, think that a 10ml glass pipette would make a handy home defense tool shiv.

2) Conglomerate negotiations. The MRU I work at has so many labs that each department has a supplies and ordering coordinator who negotiates special permanant discounts for all supplies needed. With this, the $0.30/Petri dish above becomes $0.10 per. Our black nitrile gloves (what else would a Mad Scientist wear?) cost about $0.01 each rather than the $0.05 listed. In short, the ordering coordinator uses the weight of the institution's aggregated lab purchasing parity to reduce costs across the board.

However, this option isn't really available to individuals, informal groups, or SLACS. Once again raising the costs of admission to basic science.

The high costs of science also don't do much to charm the public when they resent how their tax dollars are being spent (although I really think they should be looking far more angrily to the five-sided building than to ivory towers).

And, finally, a broader question: Do industry labs pay full cost for supplies or do they also negotiate price breaks?


Epicanis ( http://www.bigroom.org/wordpress ) said...

There's also another part to the solution: Make supplies oneself rather than paying for allegedly "premium" stuff, and find less expensive alternatives to using expensive equipment where possible.

"Luria-Bertani Broth" sounds impressive, until you realize it's just digested milk protein and table salt, for example.

A -80F freezer is not only expensive but can't possibly be cheap to supply electricity for...perhaps some investigation into less expensive lyophilization techniques for storing cultures might be worth the effort?

Admittedly, I'm still not likely to find a decent basic bacteriological microscope for under about half-a-grand, but I'm sure there are plenty of places to avoid paying the "Hey, look, I'm using Big Scientist toys now!" prices with a little extra effort...

Toaster Sunshine said...

I know.

LB broth = 10g tryptone, 5g common table salt, 10g yeast extract in 1L distilled water. If you want agar, add 2% w/v agarose (20g). You could substitute powdered nonfat milk for the tryptone and actual yeast for the yeast extract, provided that you boil the shit out of it to kill them all (and set the broth or agar).

The -80C freezer isn't just for storing cell cultures, but also for storing purified cytokine stocks, protein digests, mRNA samples, and tissues yet to be broken apart for protein or mRNA. One can jury-rig freeze drying fairly easily for bacterial cultures, but I doubt mammalian cell lines would take very kindly to it. They, however, can also be stored in a vat of liquid nitrogen and come out no worse for the wear so long as you gave them 5% DMSO.

Most things can be rigged or substituted with little a adverse consequence. For example, when someone else is in the flow hood and I need to do some isolation streaks on solid media, I'll just light a Bunsen burner and work near it. Keeps everything clean by creating an updraft.

Science Bear said...

This is a great post, I was just talking with a friend about this when one of the shakers in their lab finally died (for the last time) and this student was in charge of ordering a new one.

I think it's ridiculous personally, and just talked with a PhD in the department about start-up packages and how expensive everything seems to be. I'm very fortunate in that my lab is quite well funded, but I have friends in other labs that aren't so lucky.

Because of our funding situation, we have actually had to have meetings about excessive wastefulness. Some of the students had never "wanted" for lab supplies and thought it completely acceptable to order things without having to look at the price tag. This finally hit the fan when Dr Boss noticed an order sent to our secretary for $5000 worth of cell culture supplies (WAAAAAAY above what the student needed, but they wanted extra incase they wasted some of the reagent).

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Reduce, reuse, recycle applies here too. I hated how much plastic I had to throw away when working in the lab...

Toaster Sunshine said...

@Science Bear:
I purposely plan my experiments to be cheap, so I have a very hard time imagining spending $5K on cell culture supplies. I did a series of about 12 experiments involving cell culture not too long ago that, I think, cost maybe $500, for all of them.

The only reason I can think to need to pass your cells every time you feed them or plow through dozens of multi-well plates would be if one's sterile technique sucked. And given the volume I see other people using, it seems that many could greatly benefit from sterile technique training.

Science Bear said...

@ Toaster

I don't think anyone understood why things cost so much (maybe she misinterpreted the amount per bottle or some sort of shipping unit??). I think the main cost was for something to do with PCR, though the details were not shared with me :-)

Another lab mate nearly flipped out (coming from a less funded lab) when Dr Boss okayed spending $1300 on a tetramer to be used for one series of experiments (and we are talking ┬Ál amounts here).

Sandra Porter said...

I think, if you're really going to calculate cost, you also have to include the salaries and benefits for the people who would be making your media.

In which case, the cheapest materials would always be obtained by having the grad students washing dishes and making the media.

Hmmmm. Is that really what you want? : p