A Question About the ‘Research Inflation’ Rate

As there is lots of discussion about NIH floating around the intertoobz, one thing that I’ve seen raised in past discussions is the ‘research’ or ‘medical’ inflation rate. That is, the cost of research is increasing faster than the cost of living. I’ve been surveying people, and, as far as I can tell, it’s not graduate student and post-doc salaries that are exploding here (though graduate student tuition subsidies could be an issue).

So this is a weird request for the hive mind:

Does anyone have an old VWR or Fisher catalog (at least 2002 or older)? If so, email me or tweet me. I’m curious to see how equipment and supply costs have changed, and what they might be doing to budgets.

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7 Responses to A Question About the ‘Research Inflation’ Rate

  1. MCA says:

    One thing I wonder is whether it’s possible for NIH-type science to make tools more cheaply? My field is pretty cheap already, and excels at home-made equipment, but we also actively find cheap alternatives and publish them openly. Can’t afford that $20,000 force plate? Here’s how to make one for $1000. Can’t afford that $40,000 DPIV system? Here’s how to make one for $400. Why buy sonomicrometry crystals for $500 each when you can make them from scratch in a garage-sale toaster oven?

    Are such “hacks” even possible for the stuff NIH labs do? A colleague is doing some more NIH-ish stuff at the moment, and she just had to pay $500 for 10 mg of a dye (not even a reagent); I cannot imagine there isn’t a cheaper alternative that someone could discover and publish. I know folks are buying 3D printers to make plastic lab supplies now.

  2. charlie says:

    What about the increase in the cost of health insurance of grad students and post-docs? Could that explain it?

  3. Jjkfld Wolf says:

    what about the increases in scale and scope of equipment now considered the minimum necessary to be even considered for publication? used to get by with some field equipment for soil science and a lot of work; now need a LECO, someone to do PLFA, genomics, and/or a slew of other stuff. not to mention big facilities for climate change research–chambers to apply elevated CO2 and ozone treatments, complex and expensive.

  4. hipparchia says:

    “Does anyone have an old VWR or Fisher catalog (at least 2002 or older)?”

    ha! i knew these would come in handy someday! email sent.

    • evilDoug says:

      When I worked at The University of Calgary, Fisher was our “systems contract” supplier for lab equipment and supplies. This resulted in substantial discounts from catalog prices for most chemicals and most small equipment. I remember buying some thermometers that were about $10-12 in the catalog, and the actual cost was under a dollar! Most discounts weren’t as big as that, but 30-50% below catalog price was pretty common.

      The US “energy crisis” of the late 70s drove chemical prices way up, all across the board, even for chemicals not derived from petroleum. As an example, my 1978 BDH catalog lists barium sulphate USP at $2.10 for 500g. I made a note in late 1984 it was $11.40 for the same thing. (The catalog lists cocaine hydrochloride at $202 and ten cents! (Canadian) for 100 grams.)
      I don’t know how well it works with lab suppliers, where options are more restricted, but I know that in some cases for industrial supplies (e.g. stainless steel nuts and bolts), discounts can be had if a purchasing agents laughs and says “NO!” when quoted high prices. A really good purchasing agent (usually several) for a big institution is worth a lot of money.

      • hipparchia says:

        couldn’t find my vwr catalog, but from a jt baker 1995 or 96 catalog:
        barium sulfate, reagent grade, 500g – $128.50
        barium sulfate, usp, 500g – $130.30

        an em science catalog of the same approximate vintage doesn’t have 500g quantities listed but:
        barium sulfate (laboratory grade), case of 4x100g – $200.00
        barium sulfate (usp), case of 6x125g – $252.00


        and yes, if you buy in great quantities, or sign a contract promising to buy great quantities over a given time, for a large university for instance, you get a substantial discount. there’s a certain basic amount of time and effort that goes into processing, handling and shipping any order, whatever its size, and you have to be able to recoup that cost if you’re going to stay in business. small, one-time purchases are going to appear, on paper, to be more expensive on a per-gram basis.

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