Explaining the not very secret formula for research funding

This year I have had one very singular purpose – get money. Research tends to flow in cycles between running experiments, writing papers and applying for grants. For me, 2017 is all about applying for grants. And writing grants, when you strip away all the flowery words about impact and wider scientific improvement is about one thing – money.

As much as I love what I do, I very selfishly want to be paid for doing it. Not only that, but the people I buy equipment off, they also want to be paid and even worse, the people that own the building in which my equipment sits aren’t happy with my being a scientific squatter and also want to be paid.

So off to the funding bodies I go, to raise money to do my next piece of amazing research. There are a LOT of funding bodies all with their own specific flavour of funding, but they all essentially come down to writing some words saying how brilliant your project will make everything and then, critically, how much that will cost to make happen.

Now increasingly, when I explain to people the value of these grants, they tend to goggle at me about the costs involved in research and say things like “My taxes fund that?!”

As a rule of thumb, a research project requiring a brand new freshly graduated PhD student (a post-doc) is probably going to cost about £100k per year. Which, for freshly graduated PhD students, I bet sounds like you’re about to get an amazing salary but for tax payers probably resulted in you spitting out your coffee all over your keyboard.

Well PhD grads, you’re not getting that salary… And tax payers, sorry but it really does cost that much, but here’s the rough breakdown of why.

First off, you have people, those pesky ex-PhD students eagerly looking forward to some actual hard work. People are expensive and not just because they want a salary that allows them to buy themselves more than a can of spam and a cardboard box. A typical post-doc salary is about £30k a year (give or take a few K based on experience).

But employing a person means paying not just salary but (this is all a bit UK centric, sorry) National Insurance, sick pay, holiday days and maternity leave. So a salary of ~£30k actually costs about £36k.

Next, you have to kit out the people in the labs with gloves, lab coats, new prosthetic hands, better gloves, and all the normal everyday items that you need in a lab. These are typically classed as ‘consumables’ and cover almost everything you can think of in a lab that is semi-consumable – including chemicals. Within a grant this can easily be £10k.

But even if you have all the sciencey kit, you still need a science building to use it all in. While I have tried to do al fresco chemistry in the past, it rarely goes well for the research or that poor squirrel we accidentally set on fire. Now sciency buildings don’t magically build themselves – and those chemically resistant benches don’t replace themselves after every totally justifiable fire… They all need maintaining and looking after, which costs money. For a smallish lab, some existing kit and sturdy squirrel-proof windows this can be as much as ~£40k per year.

Then you might at some point think that travelling is a good idea. Rarely projects happen without help from other groups or at the very least a few meetings with other groups. And after a heated argument with a train guard, I am forced to admit that travel isn’t free. So let’s assume you attend one international conference doing this hypothetical one year project and take a few day trips out to see other labs and other researchers – that is about £2k. It can be more if you have some specific thing you want to go to – one seminar I needed to attend had a £900 conference fee even before flights and hotel/tent under a bridge.

Now so far, I’ve mostly been covering day to day normal costs. Each project is different and will probably need some new kit or possibly paying for time in a facility (fun fact – asking to use the low angle x-ray gun that they keep in a salt mine is strangely a little bit pricey). This cost can widely vary depending on the project – from £30k for a new laser to a few K for a bigger centrifuge. But for a small one year project something around £6k is pretty typical.

Finally there is the most important bit. Management. Blink and those newly minted PhDs will have drunk half the chemicals and be inexplicably trapped inside the equipment. So you need say 5% of a professor’s time, to keep an eye on them – assuming a modestly paid prof + extras, this will come to about £5k.

Which if I can math correctly, brings us up to £99k. The missing £1k is the amount of money I set aside for the therapy required after having to put one of these grants together.

This therapy money is especially needed as the above breakdown is basically the same in every grant +/- some equipment money. Salaries are fixed (varying a little but very similar between universities), the cost of labs is pre-agreed by the funders and the consumable budget are rarely all that different. But despite the finances being almost entirely out of the control of researchers, it’s still the poor researchers who need to make up these financials – every. single. time…

Please help, all I see is spreadsheets when I close my eyes!

2 Comments for “Explaining the not very secret formula for research funding”



If anything I think your estimate for how much a person costs is low. At the Uni our finger-in-the-air calculations for the cost of a person were normally 1.5x their actual salary at minimum (I don’t know how they calculate Full Economic Costing where I am now). I notice you don’t mention pension. Pretty much every sizeable organisation will provide a pension and expect you to pay in a chunk of your salary which they will then either match or exceed from funds separate to your salary itself. For example where I am now I pay 8% of my salary as pension and the organisation adds a further 10% on top of that. That’s quite high, to get them to max out their contribution (default is 5% from me and 6% from them IIRC, but I can put in as much as I like and they’ll never go above 10%), but the University pension I was on was similar in that I put in a chunk somewhere between 5-10% and the University then added in another larger chunk on top of that.


Yeah I based my figure off the official government site covering “extras” involved in employing someone. At Uni this is partially bundled into ‘overheads’ along with the lab space use. However, I agree I forgot about pension contribution matching (lucky I haven’t forgotten to do it, just to write about it)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *