I get a wide range of readers, from people deep in the scientific research community to those outside that enjoy looking in. Today’s blog article is to help the latter understand one of the most time consuming and difficult parts of scientific research. Buying stuff.

Now in the real world, outside of the research lab, buying stuff is pretty simple. We cracked the basics of commerce a few thousand years ago and not really changed it much since. If you want an apple then you take some money to a shop that sells apples, pick up the apple, pay for the apple, enjoy apple ownership. It’s a simple process.

Well, in research it is anything but simple.

To help explain the differences I’m going to use the example of buying an apple but explain the process as if you were buying it like we have to buy research equipment.

Funding your apple

Before buying an apple you obviously need the funds to buy an apple. Now you can’t just write a grant for an apple – you need to write a grant for what you need to do with the apple. So you scratch your head and try to think up what you can do with an apple and eventually settle on eating it. Unfortunately eating an apple is something that has been done by lots of of researchers so you write a grant where you promise to eat the apple while standing on your head and humming One Direction… for science.

In the grant you don’t need to be too specific, so at this stage you just need to make clear that you are going to eat an apple from a tree, not a computer. Sourcing and choosing the exact apple is something for later… much much later, the average time to get a grant is around 9 months.

Selecting your apple

Assuming you were lucky and got your grant, you now need to select the apple you’re going to use in your research. While your grant was very vague and will allow you to buy a wide range of apples, you need to make sure that your apple is compatible with your fruit bowl. Imperial apples may not fit in your metric fruit bowl.

Also while you have a grant to eat an apple on your head humming One Direction, you actually want the apple for a few different projects so you need to choose an apple that works with those as well. Red apples, for example, may clash badly when you make an all green fruit salad to eat hopping and whistling show tunes.

Apple suppliers and quotes

With your apple chosen you now need to find a supplier of that specific apple. Apples aren’t available in every shop and are only picked by specialist research fruit suppliers. These days Google has made finding research apples a lot easier, but companies will be very keen that they become your apple supplier and will fall over themselves wanting to send reps to see you and talk about their apples.

Apple reps, while appearing friendly, can be cut-throat and will happily explain why everyone else’s apples are full of maggots and possibly poisoned. Some may even go so far as to imply that their competitors are selling pears cut to look like apples. This is all the more confusing as you may find that several apple suppliers offer the same apple but aren’t actually fruit pickers and are just selling on apples they all got from the one small apple farm just outside of Vienna.

Ordering your apple

Now once you’ve found an apple supplier who you think is reliable, you’ll need to order your apple. To order the apple you’ll first need to make sure the supplier is in the system for your university/company. Ordering apples is a complicated business and your employer needs to make sure that they are protected from any legal matters that might arise. Apparently this protection consists of pages of terms and conditions to ensure the transaction of money for an apple goes okay. From experience, setting up a new supplier takes around a week provided no one is off work… someone is always off work.

Finally, before ordering, you’ll need to check what kind of discount you can get. Only a fool would pay full price for an apple, and they are priced with a bit of wiggle room in the costings. Typically, suppliers will expect to offer you around 10% off, but if you agree to have an ex-demo apple then you can get as much as 20%.

Taking delivery of your apple

When ordering the apple you’ll be given an approximate range of delivery times. 4-6 weeks is pretty standard, although it’s worth noting that whatever you are told is entirely fictitious and the apple will be delivered any time between the day of ordering and 1-2 years later.

If you’re very lucky then you might work somewhere where you can take delivery of your apple directly. If you work in a larger organisation, you might have a central stores/post room that will accept the apple on your behalf until such time as you can pick it up. In order to offer the best service possible, most central stores will only open during one 20 minute window during which you can pick up your apple. This may seem annoying but really it’s all about quality of service.

Sending back your orange

Opening your newly ordered apple is always very emotional. The hope and excitement of a new apple to start doing research with and that flutter of nerves as you open the box to reveal, an orange. Then comes the anger and the shouting into the phone, the long discussion about order codes and eventually re-packing your orange and taking it back to the stores.

In a further 1-2 weeks you’ll receive your apple. Often this is also the day when someone will e-mail you a research paper about someone who has recently published a study about standing on their head eating an apple and humming One Direction. At this point it is very normal to eat the apple while listening to Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper and crying, this study has been done by many many many researchers before you.

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