Tips for managing an academic research lab budget
Once you have chosen the techniques you plan to implement in your lab as well as the personnel to perform the experiments, you now face the challenge of developing a budget to fund your research goals. Fortunately, as a new faculty member, you will likely have received a start-up package that you negotiated to cover the majority of your expenditures. As the name implies, a start-up package should allow you to hit the ground running and begin collecting meaningful data. The information you used to negotiate your start-up package will allow you to lay out the basics of your initial budget.
There are three major components within a lab budget: 1) personnel (salary, benefits, meeting travel/registration), 2) major equipment, and 3) supplies/consumables.
Personnel can constitute a large majority of your budget once you have purchased the major equipment necessary to conduct your research. This is especially true as you move forward in your career and your lab continues to grow in size. However, as a new investigator, your hiring decisions will determine how much of your budget is allocated for personnel.
A new investigator has the opportunity to make the critical hires to begin a successful career, and these hires will likely fall into one of three categories: 1) full- or part-time laboratory technicians, 2) postdoctoral fellows, and 3) graduate or undergraduate students.
Some—but certainly not all—universities will include the salary for a technician in your start-up package. If this is the case, having a competent technician as you begin your research career can be very important to your future successes. A technician can work in the lab full time without the demands of teaching or service and may be able to provide technical expertise in an area that is new to you. In addition, a technician can help train graduate and undergraduate students. A good technician will also provide your lab with some continuity, as postdoctoral fellows and graduate students may be in your lab for only a few years. However, a full-time technician can consume a large portion of your initial budget, whereas postdoctoral fellows or graduate students can often be funded by outside sources.
A good postdoc can greatly improve your research productivity, as he or she is usually well-trained and is motivated to be productive in order to be competitive for a faculty position in several years. Similar to a technician, a postdoc can also help you train graduate and undergraduate students. Ideally, you would like to find a postdoc who has a fellowship from an institute such as the National Institutes of Health or the American Heart Association. Depending on the source of the fellowship, it will often cover the salary, benefits, and travel for the postdoc.
In a faculty position, you will also be expected to mentor graduate students, and they may comprise the largest portion of your personnel. There are numerous ways to fund graduate students, such as predoctoral grants, teaching assistantships, and/or research assistantships. Predoctoral grants and/or teaching assistantships would not contribute to your budgetary planning, whereas research assistantships are generally funded by your start-up financing and/ or grants. Ideally, you would like to find postdocs or graduate students who have funding for at least one year, thereby giving you time to obtain grant funding to support them further in your laboratory.
Before you begin purchasing the major equipment for your laboratory, compile a list of equipment and supplies and divide it into resources that are expensive and resources that are essential to successful research. This will enable you to categorize your budget and thus use your funds in the most effective manner. For example, required equipment and supplies could include large/heavy equipment (refrigerators, hoods, lab shakers, centrifuges), microscopy, cellular/molecular biology equipment (PCR machines, plate readers), computing and printing equipment, general lab equipment (pipettors, microfuges, vortex), chemicals and reagents, and reference books.
With respect to major equipment, your first step is to learn about core and/or shared facilities within your institution. Most major research universities have core facilities that often include expensive equipment that is generally not within the budget of an individual investigator. For example, some universities have institutes that maintain state-of-theart imaging equipment, such as electron and atomic force microscopes and functional MRIs. Core or shared facilities would also include equipment that you would not use on a regular basis. Consequently, it is not in your best interest to budget a significant amount of money on such equipment.
After determining the equipment that you definitely need to purchase for your independent laboratory, the first step is to receive quotes from several companies, especially when you do not need to purchase a specific model or brand. Many of the major scientific supply companies offer specialized new-lab start-up programs that provide discounts on all types of equipment and lab consumables. It is also important to develop a good working relationship with the local sales representatives for the companies with which you will be conducting the majority of your business.
Second, you should ask colleagues if they have any spare equipment that they are no longer using and would be willing to donate to your laboratory. Oftentimes, well-funded, senior faculty will be happy to donate older equipment when they update to newer models. In most cases, this equipment works great and can save your budget thousands of dollars. It may also be helpful to develop relationships with investigators with similar research interests/ techniques who have established laboratories. In these cases, you may be able to share certain equipment or reagents. Independent of budget issues, it is always important to begin developing collaborations within your department or university.
Another nontraditional source of major equipment is companies that specialize in used laboratory equipment. Local appliance or big-box stores are excellent sources for purchasing basic appliances, lab furniture, tools, cleaning supplies, carts, etc. While these items can be purchased from lab supply companies, the prices are significantly higher for the same items.
An additional consideration if you purchase new equipment is whether to buy a service contract. A service contract can include many services beyond a general warranty, such as software updates, calibration, certification, preventive maintenance, priority service, and/or additional discounts on upgrades. Service contracts can be costly, and you can either discuss options with colleagues or make your own informed decisions. Several reasons why you may choose to purchase a service contract could include reduced inconvenience if your equipment breaks, faster/priority repairs, and a predictable expense in your budget. If a piece of equipment is critical to your work, you use it frequently, and major repairs are very expensive, a service contract may be worthwhile. In terms of budget, you will know exactly what you are going to pay in advance and will not be blindsided with a major "surprise" expense. On the other hand, you may end up paying for services that you never use and therefore paid for "peace of mind," which would extend beyond the typical one-year warranty.
Once you have outfitted your lab with all the appropriate major equipment, the majority of your budget will likely be spent on personnel costs. However, the daily costs of running the lab must also be considered in your budget. While the daily costs will vary depending on the number of people in your lab, the types of assays you perform, etc., a general rule is that you can plan on spending ~$1,000/month on pipette tips, tubes, glassware, cell culture supplies, gloves, etc. Additional consumable supplies, such as antibodies, enzymes, ELISA kits, and PCR kits, will add to these costs; however, items like antibodies or enzymes—if correctly stored and handled—can last for months to years. After tracking your spending over a representative period of time, you will be able to get a good estimate of how much to budget for supplies and consumables.
Staying within budget/tracking spending
Following the development of an initial budget to run your laboratory, it is important to track your spending to ensure that you are working within the parameters of your budget. This can be accomplished using spreadsheet or database programs. A database program can be particularly helpful, as you can establish a database of your money sources (start-up, grants, etc.), suppliers, and a record of all your purchase orders. This can also save time with regard to purchasing supplies that you buy on a regular basis. For example, you can have a standing purchase order for pipette tips and microfuge tubes that you would just print out and give to the person in charge of ordering when you need additional supplies.
While developing and implementing a budget for your new laboratory may be as fun as balancing your checkbook, it is indispensable to initiating a successful career. Making the most of your start-up budget, in part, can be instrumental in obtaining future grant support. Specifically, budgeting for enough personnel and the necessary equipment is the only way you will be able to generate preliminary data for your subsequent grant applications. Unfortunately, budgeting and accounting strategies are generally not part of your training as a graduate student or postdoc, and thus you must take the initiative to learn from mentors and/or colleagues when it comes time to develop the best budgeting strategies. Remember that successful budgeting continues throughout your career, as all granting agencies expect you to present an accurate and well-documented budget for spending the money you obtain from your successful grant applications.