Each year universities, government agencies, and private philanthropies invest billions of dollars in scientific research. Yet little is done to help scientists prepare for managing this money, or the laboratory it pays for. Why is there such a dearth of lab-management resources out there?
The culture of modern research is still, in large part, set in an era of science that has now passed, the era in which most of today's scientific leaders were trained. It was an era of relatively easy money, an era of handshakes and trust. The scientific workforce was homogeneous. Management issues were much less intrusive on the science. Today, however, the business of being a scientist is much more complicated. As Michael McClure notes in the following essay, today the business of science is much more of a business than it used to be.
The corporatizing of science is a relatively recent development. There aren't that many lab-management resources because they are only recently needed. The need is relatively new, and the scientific-training community has been relatively slow to respond.
Of course, Next Wave's Career Development Center for Postdocs and Junior Faculty (CDC) exists for precisely this reason. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) were among the forward-looking organizations that recognized the need for management training early on. They saw value in working to improve the management skills of young scientists. BWF and HHMI provided the funds and Science's Next Wave the leg work: researching and disseminating information on the nonresearch skills that scientists need to succeed.
BWF and HHMI did something else as well: With the assistance of Science's Next Wave they created a short course, the BWF/HHMI Course in Scientific Management. This intense, 4-day course, which took place last July, was a great success, with rave reviews all round. Some participants called it the best training experience of their lives. Unfortunately, cost considerations limited participation to just a few BWF and HHMI fellows--some 120 young scientists all told. A drop in the bucket.
The Career Development Center, though, is available to everyone, and this week we begin the process of disseminating more widely information presented in the course. This article is the first part of a multipart series  based on presentations delivered during the course.
First up is Mike McClure, chief of the Organs and Systems Toxicology Branch of the Division of Extramural Research and Training at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). McClure focused on the importance for scientists of viewing the research enterprise as a business, and of developing a long-term, sustainable revenue strategy to pay for the laboratory.
Until you become a billionaire and are able to fund your own research, you are going to need money, you are going to need a budget, and you are going to need to work skillfully with that budget to make the things happen that you want to happen.
We have a variety of sources of funding in the United States; there are literally hundreds of sources--mostly philanthropic--of dollars to help you build your budget and your career. But most private money is start-up money, seed money, explore money. It is money for testing a new idea. It is easy to get seed money to start up a new idea and test it; it's hard to keep an idea that you've tested on the development track: that is, to develop and maintain a research program.
You are a business. You are the CEO, and the scientific director. You are also the sales representative. You sell yourself and your ideas; that is your product. You use your communication skills--written and oral--to do that. You build a business plan, based on a combination of reality and vision. Or you fail.
That's a research career these days.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when you're putting a together a long-term budget plan to support your enterprise. You need to know the answer to each of these questions, and to find the answers, you need to do your homework.
Who is the fiscal audience I'm going to be approaching?
The fiscal audience is the sponsoring organization: program officers, business officers, and peer reviewers--the people who have the dollars in their pockets. They exist to give you the money you need to do your work.
What will the fiscal audience be looking for?
They will be looking for good science, obviously, but not only that. They also expect you to understand and adhere to their policies, practices, and priorities. This is where many applicants--even excellent scientists with very good ideas--fall short.
Procedures and priorities change with time. If I use the policies and the practices that I learned 40 years ago to prepare a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant proposal now, it will fail. You have to keep current, because practices and priorities change--on time scales much shorter than 40 years, especially with the donor sources that are in the private sector. Private-sector sources constantly map the terrain, plan strategy, and set new priorities. Fortunately this information isn't hard to find: These organizations publish it and make it available on their Web sites. But it's up to you to find it and read it. If you don't keep up with it, then you may be 2 years behind what they're looking for. You can hurt yourself that way.
From Science Fair to Science Fare
In the early days of science, it was like a science fair. Royalty ruled; patronage supported protégé scientists via decreed grants of privilege. Loyalty was one-way, earned daily, ever-challenged with the advance of time by more novel competing interests.
Patronage was defined then as it is now: funding from personal wealth. Either out of your own pocket like Thomas Jefferson, or from someone else's personal wealth, like Galileo or Johannes Kepler. They didn't have jobs; what they had was patronage, with which somebody bought their abilities and assured them the opportunity to do the work they wanted to do. What they were buying was the uniqueness one could offer. This is still true today.
Today the patronage system still exists, but in different form. The mindset in the earlier era of science was different than it is now. In the era that has just passed scientific merit was the key. If you put in an application and your peers gave you a high score for scientific merit, it was entitled to funding.
These days there is no entitlement to funding. You can get a perfect score from a peer review and not get money. I know of a major grant that had a 2.5 percentile that wasn't funded. Program priorities and the availability of funds are important issues. Today's NIH has money, but not enough to fund every worthy project. NIH has to set spending priorities, and scientific merit is only one of the factors that goes into making funding decisions.
Program considerations--what products are in demand--is the other major consideration. With NIH as with the private philanthropies, you need to keep up with what the programs are doing. The NIH program staff develop new programs that address congressionally identified public health needs, needs determined by the Department of Health and Human Services or NIH, or needs determined by peer scientists. Once these needs are identified, a program is developed, a mechanism for packaging the money and dispersing it to address those needs.
Information on NIH programs is readily accessible, on Web sites, in the NIH guide, in flyers distributed at national meetings. Program people corner everybody over a beer ... they do everything they can to tell scientists about programs that are being developed. But NIH is a big place; there are a lot different programs, and every program has it's own unique requirements. In order to stay current, you need to do your homework.
There is only one principal investigator (PI) in the eyes of NIH and the law. "Co-PI" is an honorific title that your organizational structure may put on grants, but when something goes wrong there is one person that gets hung. The PI is the CEO, and his or her career will flourish or fail depending on how well the enterprise does in a competitive science-business world.
In earlier days we focused on the joy of science. Somebody else was paying the bill. What's happening now is that scientists have to pay the bill. It is no longer a science fair, it is science fare. Science has become a product, bought and sold.
The business plan for a typical modern-day research laboratory is akin to that of a business leasing a retail store, or space in a shopping mall. The management will favor you to get in and get started in order to fill up the mall, to keep occupancy high. You will survive as an enterprise as long as your enterprise covers the overhead--that's the piece that the university gets--and generates profits--that's the piece that pays your salary and your budgeted staff. They will favor you as long as your enterprise offers the mall--the university or medical center--a better draw than a competitor.
What does it really cost to run a lab? Real costs vary. Each NIH institute has different average grant costs because of programmatic policies and the mix of programs that we use. Here are some typical numbers:
To start up a biomedical research lab enterprise takes at least a $300,000 to $400,000 commitment, minimum, over 2 years. At the University of Texas, for example, they figure on about $300,000 to $500,000 to start up a lab. Beyond the start-up period, you can count on $150,000 to $200,000 direct costs annually, at a minimum.
It's Not Your Money
The federal government gives the money to the university on your behalf for a specified purpose. The money you get from NIH goes to the university. They bank it, and they allow you to draw from your savings bank to pay for things you need. The accountability, accounting, and all the compliance responsibility rests with the university. That doesn't mean they won't hold you accountable, but legally it rests with the institution.
Your institution doesn't get real money; they get a promise. You're spending university money until the end of the year; then the university turns in a letter of credit, and then they get a reimbursement.
Five-year project direct costs can easily add up to a million dollars. Then you have to add in F&A--facilities and administration costs--what used to be called indirect costs, or overhead. The average F&A rate in the U.S. is 52%. There are institutions that have 110% F&A. So if you submit a $300,000 grant, the institution adds on $330,000, so the grant is over $600,000. If you're at a state university where the overhead is 14%, they turn in a grant half the size of the first one. The system accommodates that kind of request, but the request with the smaller overhead rate will appear to NIH as a better bargain. These are some things that you need to think about as you're working on building an enterprise--especially when you're deciding which shopping mall to rent space in--assuming you have multiple offers.
The total cost of an average 5-year project--a typical NIH R01 grant--is now $1,520,000. That's what each of you will be looking at when you get an average R01 grant.
It's a big number. It takes a while to get used to it. At the beginning of our careers we're all thinking in terms of the $5.20 we got at minimum wage while we were in college, or of our parents' situation. But the scale is different. In time you will learn to think on a business scale rather than a personal scale. You have to be aware of this, because there's a tendency to be overly conservative on your budgets when you're young, or (perhaps because of bad advice from an enthusiastic mentor) to overreact and put in too big a request. Either--asking for too little or too much--will hurt your chances. It takes realism. And that transition will happen with experience.
Michael McClure is chief of the Organs and Systems Toxicology Branch of the Division of Extramural Research and Training at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).