What Does It Cost to Run a Small College Lab?

Over at io9, they have a post on the finances of running a research lab at a major university. It's reasonably good as such things go, but very specific to the top level of research universities. As I am not at such an institution, I thought it might be worthwhile to post something about the finances of the sort of place I am at: a private small liberal arts college.

I'll follow the io9 article's format, but first, one important clarification:

Do you really do research at a small college? Yes, absolutely. At the upper level private liberal arts colleges, faculty are expected to be active scholars, not just teachers. Which means carrying on some kind of research program-- not at the same scale as at a research university, of course, but there is absolutely an expectation that faculty will carry on research, and some people-- Tiku Majumder at Williams, Dave Hall and Larry Hunter at Amherst, to pick examples from my own subfield-- are tremendously effective.

The resources you get to work with are much, much less than at a top-level research university, though. Hence this post.

What does a new faculty member start with? The io9 author, Keith Veronese, writes that:

A new faculty member, fresh off a purgatory of post-doctoral research stints, receives a "start-up" package from the university (and more importantly, the department) they have just joined. This start-up package is mandated in the faculty member's initial contract, and often becomes a sticking point in negotiations. The package can be anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000 or more, depending on the research field and the type of research the faculty member will perform. This chunk of money is intended to allow the new faculty member to purchase the basic instrumentation and equipment necessary for their research, materials, and pay for the salaries of post-doctoral researchers and, if in a department where their stipends are not defrayed by teaching, graduate students.

The basic concept carries over to smaller institutions, but you should drop the amount by almost an order of magnitude. This obviously varies from place to place, but if you're getting better than $100,000 in start-up at a small liberal arts college, you're doing really well. The chances of a new hire getting $500,000 in start-up money are about as good as the chances of winning the lottery. Because that's what you'd have to do to get a half-million in start-up funds from a small college: win the lottery, and donate half a million to your own lab.

This means, of course, that buying a giant pile of shiny new apparatus is more or less out of the question. You can buy some critical systems new, but for a lot of other items, you need to be creative. There's a decent market in used scientific equipment-- Capovani Brothers is local, and I've gotten a bunch of stuff from them-- and if you have connections to a major university or research lab, you can often get them to donate things that they're not using any more. I have a bunch of vacuum hardware, including a turbo pump that would cost $10K new, that I got from my old group at NIST.

On the bright side, though, you aren't expected to pay graduate students or post-docs out of this money. Of course, this also means that you don't have graduate students or post-docs working full time in your lab, putting your apparatus together. You can get research students, but they're undergrads, and thus don't know as much or have as much time to spend in the lab as graduate students.

Acquiring Funding. As noted in the io9 piece, NSF and NIH are the main sources for research grants at large universities, and that's true for smaller schools as well. Depending on your field of research, there are some other government agencies that will give grants-- one of the astronomers has funding from NASA, and another colleague has funding from the Department of Energy. At small colleges, there's also the Cottrell College Science Award program at the Research Corporation, which provide smaller grants specifically to faculty at small colleges. These have long served as sort of "starter grants" for small college faculty, though I understand that the funding situation there has gotten much tighter.

I have no personal experience with NIH, but the NSF has a program specifically aimed at smaller institutions, the cleverly named Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) program. Faculty at institutions that qualify for the RUI grants can submit their proposals as an RUI, and write an additional statement talking about the impact of the research on the institution. I'm not clear on exactly how much advantages this offers, though, as the grants are still reviewed by the same people-- in writing reviews for NSF, I get sent a mix of RUI and non-RUI grants, and while I haven't been on a review panel, I believe they're considered by the same panels, although with an additional suggestion that reviewers cut them some slack (more or less).

These grants can be pretty big-- hundreds of thousands of dollars-- and will cover equipment, summer research students, and summer salary for the PI. You can occasionally get funding for a post-doc this way, but it's a little tricky, both because you probably need some institutional matching funds, and also because it's hard to find good people who want to do a post-doc at a small college.

Since I mentioned matching funds above, this is a good place to talk about that: most granting agencies like to see some evidence of support from the home institution, which usually takes the form of "matching funds." The college will commit to paying some expense-- sometimes part of the cost of an instrument, sometimes renovating a lab, sometimes just housing for summer students-- if the grant agency provides money for something else-- a new instrument to put in renovated space, or students to put in free housing. There are a lot of silly little accounting games that go with this, but it's an important element of grant writing.

Maintaining a Lab The io9 article suggests that this can be "anywhere from $20,000 or more per year," which, yeah, probably not so much at a small school. You can add lines for consumable supplies to NSF grants (and, I assume, NIH), but if you're running a small scale program at a small school, you're probably below $10,000.

Many colleges and departments have (smallish) budgets for this sort of thing. Our department buys liquid nitrogen in bulk, for example, because there are a number of experiments that use it, and the college has a couple of small research funds that will provide a few thousand here and there.

Buying New Equipment Don't plan on doing a whole lot of this, at least not really big stuff. We can get on the order of $3,000/year from the college for new equipment purchases, and I have on occasion gotten similar amounts from department funds. The main sources of money for new equipment, though, are external grants, particularly if you want anything costing more than $10,000.

Making Money for the University Most external grants include "indirect costs," which is the technical term for money that goes to the institution to pay for benefits and support facilities and that sort of thing. The exact amount varies from place to place. Locally, the indirect costs rate for external grants is 58% of faculty salaries.

This is less of a cash cow for a small school than a large research university, because the level of grant activity isn't as high. Since the college isn't depending on that money to keep things running, there isn't quite as much pressure to have external funding, but there's still a strong incentive for the institution.

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Thanks for the hard numbers. As someone testing out the job market at small schools, I've often been asked for "start-up costs" for my research, and it's difficult because I don't want to reach too high (for obvious reasons) or too low (so I seem naive or not seriously committed to research) but have never been able to get numbers from anyone to base my draft on. I know it varies from school to school (as there are so many different levels of undergraduate research institutions) but it's good to have a starting point.

Most external grants include "indirect costs," which is the technical term for money that goes to the institution to pay for benefits and support facilities and that sort of thing. The exact amount varies from place to place. Locally, the indirect costs rate for external grants is 58% of faculty salaries.

It's possible Union uses different definitions from most places, but where I work benefits for grant-supported personnel are considered a direct expense. For summer students and summer faculty salary this will typically be limited to the employer share of payroll taxes, but academic year salary and salary for people with calendar year positions will generally have a higher benefits rate (over 40% of salary, in my case).

Then there is the question of basis for overhead (indirect costs) rate. The post implies that at Union only labor costs are subject to overhead. Where I work, there are two exceptions to the overhead cost base: graduate student tuition/fees and subcontract amounts over $25k. Everything else is subject to overhead here (our rates are in the high 40s). That includes benefits (and is compounded), so I have to budget more than $2 for every dollar I want to pay myself. Some of the indirect costs may be rebated to researchers or departments in order to pay for things like computers which generally are not allowed as direct costs on grants (you have to be able to argue that the item would be used specifically for that grant and any successors thereto).

Preemptive clarification, since there seems to be much confusion about indirect cost rates: The quoted percentage is applied to direct costs which are part of the indirect cost base. So if your overhead rate is 50% and all of your direct costs are subject to this rate, then you will actually be able to spend 2/3 of the grant money you receive; the institution will take the other 1/3 to cover indirect costs.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 16 Aug 2011 #permalink

New England SLAC here. Our overhead is 40% of all direct costs (including all equipment under $5000).

Startup estimate is about right- $100k plus is the stratosphere. The billion-ish endowment schools might get up to $150k. Which bears noticing: startup funding is correlated with endowment. (Which is also inversely correlated with teaching load- look at what schools are on a 2/2 vs a 3/2 vs a 4/4...)

This is of course for experimentalist startup. Not sure what theorists get.

Postdoc issue is indeed very thorny. Kind of an inverse Groucho Marx neurosis. The bio people at least can hire techs to ease their workload- lab physics, not so much.

Yeah, I should've been clearer about the basis thing. That's probably one of the biggest sources of variation-- some places calculate indirect costs for everything, others just for salaries, other just for equipment, etc. The local rule is 58% of salaries, a figure whose origin I couldn't begin to guess, though I suspect goat entrails may have been involved.

This sounds familiar from my MA at a small state college bio department, which definitely got me in the state of mind to appreciate DIY Biology.

Faculty looking to do research on the cheap may find good money-saving ideas in the DIY Bio newsgroups. They'll also find a lot of WTF, but that can be entertaining.

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