The movie has given me a number of talking points to launch from. One is the number that Stonehill throws out for the size of grant he needs to work on the disease: five hundred thousand dollars. What went unsaid, was that this amount was for only about a year's worth of research in an academic setting. It seems a lot of money. It IS a lot of money. But what I thought when I heard the character toss out that figure in the movie - was "IS THAT ALL???". So why is it so expensive?
Here are the major expense catagories on a typical grant:
When a professor is awarded a research grant, it is broken down into two major cost categories: Direct and Indirect costs. The direct costs are what go to the lab to pay for the research. The indirect costs go to the university to pay for facilities costs - basically overhead. Indirect costs go to pay the electric bill, and maintain the building and the physical plant. They go for administrative services that the school has to maintain to administer the grant (and technically, the grant, while written by the professor, is actually awarded to the University, earmarked for the professor's research use). Each university negotiates an 'indirect cost rate' with the grantor. This rate us usually somewhere in the ballpark of 50 to 70%. Meaning that for every $100,000 of the grant, 50-70,000 goes straight to the University. Some granting agencies - notably the federal government, pay the indirects on top of the directs (i.e. for every $100,000 to the research, the government pays an additional 50-70,000 to the University. But many other grantors don't pay indirects, so it comes out of the grant off the top before half or less goes to the research.
Direct Costs: These are the monies that go from the grant directly to the laboratory to conduct research. They usually include:
Supplies: Those items that get used up in the course of the research. Chemicals, glassware, paper goods, tissue culture supplies, media, gloves, needles, syringes, office supplies, etc etc. On a typical half a million dollar grant (that is 500k in direct costs), maybe 75 thousand of that will go to supplies. That number may seem surprising. I mean, what else would you spend the money on? Well, supplies are generally the cheapest thing on the budget.
Equipment: Scientific equipment is REALLY expensive. In my particular work, we use what is essentially a glorified stereo amplifier. Except that it is a very specialized amplifier, optimized for detecting and amplifing very small signals. So it is a specialized, small market kind of thing. Each one has to be hand made. We need several of them at $14,000 apiece. The equipment that just one person in my lab has personal and exclusive use of, costs upwards of $100,000. I have six sets of this apparatus. Fortunately, it lasts virtually forever, so I'm still using stuff I bought many years ago, and the costs averages out over the years. But still.....a lab grade freezer is $20,000. An ultra-centrifuge is easily over $100,000. Advanced microscopes commonly found in a lab can cost over $100,000. If its an electron microscope, try $500,000. Fortunately, for some items, we can band together and share the cost of some of the more expensive things like centrifuges.
"Other". Other expenses include things like veterinary services, publication costs, tuition for students. Yes, that's right. If I am running a lab with students, my grant has to pay their tuition to the University (even though I'm the one teaching them). Publishing a scientific paper usually involves paying the journal upwards of $1000 to $2000 per article to cover the cost (yes, we have to pay to publish). Veterinary services are a huge expense. More on that in another post. "Other" usually ends up being the second biggest category - maybe $100K of that $500K grant.
So to this point, we've spent $250,0000 of that half a million, without having anyone to do the work. To pay the personel of even a small laboratory can easily be $400,000 / year. Personel is the big ticket item. Something most people don't know about academic science is that professors are expected to pay their own salary. The university tells us how much we are allowed to pay ourselves, but we are meant to pay it. With salary and benefits, that is easily over 100K from the grant. Each person in the lab, and believe me, they are underpaid, costs the grant around $60,000 a year in salary + benefits (they will only see half to 2/3 or that depending on their position.) Obviously, there is not $400,000 left in the grant - so one makes up the shortfall either by getting another grant, or by secondary means - scolarships, fellowships, bank robbery.
And that is why when Harrison Ford said he could do it for half a million - I thought IS THAT ALL????
BTW, something I forgot to mention about the accuracy of the movie is that as we age, we all come to look like Harrison Ford - except the women. They got that part completely right ;-).