The Technical Side of Science: The Cost of Disease Research

Part of the reason that I started Science Daily Dose is because I wanted to share the interesting discoveries in science with a more broad audience. Most publications that scientists write are not for a broad audience. Indeed, sometimes even scientists in a different field are not always able to understand the broad implications of published experiments because “science” is such a broad term and scientists typically focus on a very narrow subject area.

As a scientist, I also see it as my responsibility to share research discoveries with the public. The best people to explain scientific research are scientists themselves, and I think there are a number of reasons that it is important. First, a lot of scientific research done worldwide is done using public funding. Since taxpayer dollars (or euros, or francs, etc.) are being used, I think it’s essential for the public to have access to the research that is being done with that money. Second, there are so many interesting projects that are being studied, and the impact or context of that research is not always obvious so it is important for researchers to provide this context.

// How do scientists get money to do research?

Among scientists, it’s no secret that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to be an academic researcher. To have money to do research, scientists need to write grants to different funding agencies, outlining how they plan on using the money and what their expected outcomes of the research would be. In one particular funding agency, the National Institutes of Health in the US, the success rate of grants (that is, the number of grants that were awarded to researchers compared to the total number of applications that they receive) has steadily decreased in the past decade or so. This trend of an increasingly competitive funding process is occurring nearly across the board, and would be even more impacted in the case of major proposed budget cuts to these funding agencies.

In recent years, the amount of funding for the National Institutes of Health (the purple bars) has remained about the same, while the chances of getting a grant funded (green line) have decreased. Image via NIH.

// So why does science research cost so much*?

(*Note: For this part, I’m going to speak only about disease research but consider that different areas of science research also have their own (high) operational costs.)

When working with biological organisms, there is classification system (known as the “biosafety level”) of the organism. This classification, ranked from level 1 to level 4, is based on things like the risk of exposure and infection, the severity of the exposure or infection, and the type of research that is being done. Most laboratories that work with non-infectious diseases would be classified as level 1 labs, while things like tuberculosis research would be level 3. Only a few level 4 labs exist in the world, and they investigate diseases with no known treatment or cure (like the ebola and marburg viruses).

In order to do research on a particular disease, a scientific lab must provide certain precautions not only for the researchers working with the disease, but also to ensure that the risk of contamination or infection is as low as possible, for example to other researchers that work in the same building or in nearby buildings. As a result, each different biosafety level requires certain systems to be present. For example, beginning from level 2, there should be restricted access so that only researchers with authorization can enter the room, and from level 3 there should be negative air pressure in the research lab so that air from the room cannot exit the room when someone opens the door. There are also requirements for things like air filtration and how items that are used in the research lab must be cleaned before they are disposed.

Building and implementing these specialized laboratories comes at a high cost. As an example, at EPFL, a level 3 lab that was recently constructed cost 5’000’000 CHF (Swiss Francs) to build, and the base operational costs per year –just to maintain the negative air pressure, keep the lights on and maintain the waste disposal system, etc. — are 800’000 CHF. This excludes any materials that are needed to actually do the research (things like lab coats and gloves, drugs to test in disease treatment, and salaries of researchers doing the experiments).

// Want to learn more about the science in your area?

If you want to learn more about the science going on in your area, search online for local science fairs, exhibitions at local universities or libraries, and as always, check back here for the latest posts!