An incident last week reminded me just how mind-bogglingly expensive it is to do science. Our group’s purchasing cards stopped working for a few days (the exact reason, you’ll be surprised to learn, did not involve us overspending on death lasers or Mentos and Diet Coke, as much as I would have liked it to have). These are effectively credit cards tied to grant money that we use to buy all the fancy and not-so fancy lab supplies: test tubes, mysterious white powders, gloves, kegs and kegs of acetone. Not Bunsen burners, though, as lab-ish as those are. We have a special retro nostalgia account dedicated purely to Bunsen burners.
So it got me thinking in hypotheticals. What would happen if we had to pay for our scientific expenses out of pocket? For one, I wouldn’t be in the field for much longer, that’s for sure. I’m not even talking about the large expensive pieces of equipment. (We’ve got a big thermal evaporator glovebox – the specifics of which aren’t too important. It’s got a diffusion pump, you can think of it like a super strong super fancy vacuum, that’s about the size of a large boot and costs more than my car.) I’m just thinking about incidentals. Box of disposable gloves? $15. Drum of acetone? $100. Silicon wafers? Could be around $10 per wafer. It adds up fast.
I think that’s part of the reason you don’t see many independent Thomas Edison types anymore. I don’t have any stats on it, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that there isn’t any research going on in this country that’s not paid for by some government or industrial grant. I’ll save my science funding rant for another day, but suffice it to say, science costs are prohibitively expensive to individuals and small private groups. The money has to come from somewhere if we want space boats and invisibility cloaks.
Lab Activity of the Day: Remaking a set of transistors that fried when I made them yesterday.