Paula Stephan

 

On her book How Economics Shapes Science

Cover Interview of April 18, 2012

A close-up

Everyone knows that research costs money, of course.  But I think for many of us it is surprising just how much research costs—and just how expensive “small scale” science can be.

For example, mice, the ubiquitous research animal, cost a substantial amount to buy and keep.  An off-the-shelf mouse costs between $17 and $60; mutant strains begin at around $40 and can go up to $500.  But more than 67% of mice supplied by the Jackson Laboratory (the largest supplier of mice in the United States), are only available from cryopreserved material.  The cost to recover any strain from cryopreservation is $1,900.  For this, investigators receive at least two breeding pairs of animals in order to establish their own breeding colony.  Custom made mice, designed with a predisposition to a specific disease or problem, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, or obesity, can cost in the neighborhood of $3,500.  The daily cost of keeping a mouse (“mouse per diem”) is around $.18.  The mouse per diem may sound cheap—until one realizes that, given the number of animals, the annual budget for mouse upkeep for some researchers can be well in excess of $200,000.  Universities have even recruited faculty by providing them cage rates that were lower than those charged at their previous institutions.

If a browsing reader were to approach the book in a bookstore, the chapter that is the most fun to read—at least for us non-scientists—is the role of equipment and materials in research (chapter 5).  There are lots of surprises here for the non-scientist.  Mouse per diems are but one example.  The fights over who will have access to a telescope and who won’t and the willingness (or unwillingness, as the case may be) of scientists to share materials and data provide other interesting examples.