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The Black Hole

Keeping track of your lab expenses


There are, of course, nuances to formulating a budget, and it’s highly advisable to consult with someone who is experienced and understands the politics of the department you are applying to before committing. To help, I’ve asked my friend Damien Wilpitz of Experimental Design Consulting to contribute a number of articles on the details of negotiating a start-up package, keeping track of one’s expenses and hiring. This is the second of his posts.

“Where did all of my funding go? I thought I was spending within my budget, but now I’m in the red!  To top it off, we don’t have enough for the assays on order!”

Nicholas, a new investigator, was frustrated with the current report his funding manager presented him. All she could do was shrug her shoulders, and suggest applying for new grants.

This is a common thread among new investigators who aren’t used to tracking their spending. Bookkeeping is a serious matter when it comes to being able to manage your current funds and to be able to track spending trends or burn rates.

In my 20 years of experience as a research manager, I found that investigators don’t spend their funds wisely. They don’t focus their investments on the most important research objectives. They’ll spend their time on too many unfocused projects with a low chance of producing a manuscript. They tend to focus on the cheap experimental assays and reagents. They’ll buy inexpensive tips or bottom shelf antibodies, resulting in multiple repeated experiments. Or they’d inappropriately insource their efforts. I knew an investigator who used to have his technicians fill pipet tip boxes rather than purchase pre-sterilized tips. The labor cost alone (not including quality controls) exceeded the cost of the tips by 60 percent!

Budgets can help you understand fixed costs, like salaries and maintenance contracts. However, everyone in science knows that the variable costs associated with research are as predictable as the hypothesis itself. Therefore, to understand what those variables are, and to predict them, requires collecting the financial data associated with the science. It requires us to be able to separate those costs relative to the projects and operations.

There are several aspects to analyzing your lab spending trends. After the initial set up or fixed costs, like equipment, service contracts, glassware, tools, personnel, and a host of other known costs, the variable expenses are the things that can ultimately spell a lab’s doom. Especially if you’re not watching your spending trends.

If you’re wise, and track your spending, you can make some very educated management decisions that can save you time, money and energy.

Here are three particular variable expenses that I focus on:

  1. Operational costs
    These are common monthly costs that are variable depending on personnel size and the magnitude of your project which include: tissue cultureware, plasticware, tips, tubes, etc. These costs aren’t necessarily fixed to any particular projects, but will fluctuate with the overall size and experimental flow of the lab.
  2. Project costs
    These are only associated with specific experimental costs: antibodies, assay kits, compounds, animals, etc. These costs will fluctuate dramatically throughout the life of the project, rather than the flow of the lab.
  3. Service costs
    These are associated with institute/departmental core services: flow cytometry, gene sequencing services, mass spectrometry, animal maintenance, etc. I find that these costs can have the greatest impact on a lab’s budget, because the ballooning costs associated with maintaining live animals can easily escape a young investigator’s attention. These costs are often intangible and the billing tends to be delayed, creating a lack of visceral feel for the fluctuations in spending.

In order to keep track of these types of spending, I advise finding a bookkeeping software, or tools that can help you not only create a catalog for all of your resources, but also educate yourself on the associated costs.

Doesn’t a funding manager/grants manager do that?

Yes AND no. The funding or grants manager’s primary duties are to handle the accounting for the department/institute by ensuring that your funds are in accordance with the awarding funding institution (NIH, etc.).  However, most often they’re not educated on your science, and the resources associated with your science. Therefore, tracking the spending trends with the associated experimental and operational costs is something that you, the investigator, are responsible for.

A funding manager can provide you with accounting reports and expected spending budgets, which are still very useful. Unfortunately, these budgets are broad analyses of the associated costs. They aren’t granular enough to give insightful reports to make experimental based decisions. For example, they can tell you how much you’re spending on your reagents, but they won’t be able to tell you if the actual reagent is a common stocking item or if it’s associated with a specific project assay.  These types of variables are harder to determine and to track from an administrative perspective.

This is why it’s important to be able to track your own spending by using an internal bookkeeping system that’s specific to your lab and research goals.

There are multiple resources out there. Here are my top three bookkeeping tools that I tend to use and recommend to clients and colleagues:

  • iLab Solutions
    • Pro: The company has been aggressively integrating into many institutes’ core facilities’ bookkeeping systems making managing core expenses seamless.
    • Pro: The integrated business intelligence and analytics helps to watch lab spending trends.
    • Con: The lab management software solution is not free. There is a yearly fee for a small lab of up to six members. (Consult with company sales rep)
    • Con: The software solution takes a little bit of getting used to. The learning curve can be challenging to some and there are a lot of features that don’t necessarily apply to all labs.
  • Quartzy
    • Pro: The company is investor-backed and offers great “effortless quotes”, which allows guaranteed lowest pricing on items, and it’s free.
    • Pro: Its polished interface design makes it more user friendly, and has a seamless integration.
    • Con: There are no real integrated analytics, therefore raw data has to be downloaded and further analyzed.
    • Con: The solution lacks institutional core facility, procurement, or purchasing integrations. Redundant ordering and tracking systems is still required through the department or host institution.
  • Google Sheets
    • Pro: It’s free and universally accepted by many institutions.
    • Pro: Its versatility lends to the ever-changing size and design of a lab’s diverse projects and personnel. Google’s continual improvements and upgrades are allowing for more powerful tools to manage and analyze laboratory finances and investments.
    • Con: Knowledge of Excel based solutions is required. Sheets is a watered down version of Microsoft Office’s Excel, therefore many of Excel’s analytical tools are not easily employable.
    • Con: Google scripting may be required to further enhance integration with other software solutions and user connectivity. In order to customize its features, some coding and scripting is needed.

These financial management tools, like many others, have their strengths and weaknesses. However, the point is that you need a way to track your accounts and make it a habit to review them on a monthly and quarterly basis.

If you’re on top of it, you’ll be able to spot trends. You’ll be able to know exactly where your lab funding investments are going. This may be the difference between calling it quits on a particular project, or making cost saving deals with vendors.

What ways do you keep track of your spending and what type of costs worry you? Share with us.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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  1. Lab Money / December 23, 2017 at 23:14

    Checkout Lab Spend which is free and allows for your spending on lab supplies to be tracked. Also they have a tool called Open Pricing that is a search engine for comparing prices (just enter a catalog number).