Electronic Laboratory Notebooks as a Means to Traverse the Desert of Science Funding


electronic laboratory notebooks
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is one of the largest supporters of scientific research; however, the organization’s budget has been decreasing since 2004. The use of electronic laboratory notebooks can help ensure that remaining labs stay organized and maintain scientific focus.
Image Source: Flickr user NIAID

When Harold Varmus, M.D. led the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1993-1999, the agency’s research budget expanded by 50 percent, an increase that would continue into 2003 and “[spawn] great jubilation in biomedicine and a gold-rush mentality.” Unfortunately, the funds did not last. According to a recent NPR report, “Since 2004, the NIH budget has decreased more than 20 percent,” (not taking into account the stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009). Grants, however, are synonymous to university research; with grant money, scientists are able to attract more researchers, purchase equipment, pay for recombinant animals and conduct the daily experiments that will in turn led to biomedical advances. In fact, the quality and quantity of academic research in this country has enabled American institutions to remain at the forefront of medicine and technology.

Though the NIH budget can seem plentiful to some in absolute terms ($30 billion), there is still much uncertainty in scientific research today. As Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University told NPR, “It’s an unstable system…It really depended on funding growing and growing and growing. And so we need to find some way for it to reach equilibrium.”

An old-school solution to a pressing problem today: the cultivation of patrons

In another recent article published in the New York Times, reporter William J. Broad describes how American science is “increasingly becoming a private enterprise,” funded by Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Broad writes, “In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation’s research complex reeling. Labs are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf…Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research.” Unfortunately, what happens is science might become less about national priorities and more akin to the “particular preferences” of people with large amounts of money.

Furthermore, these patrons can be “impatient with the deliberate…pace of public science,” which may come to affect how science is conducted if their influence becomes more standard and widespread. More pressingly, what strategy can a current researcher employ to increase the likelihood that he or she stays afloat? Already, research has shown that the number of investigators with NIH funding has “dropped sharply” suggesting that “a long-anticipated contraction in the number of labs supported by the NIH may have finally begun” with important implications on the number of principal investigators who can continue to support labs. As Jeremy Berg, president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) commented in Science Magazine, “is this a wise culling of the herd, or is this a destructive loss of productive investigators and talent?”

ELNs as a possible means to stay afloat in today’s funding desert

As funding sources, most notably the federal government, tighten their coffers, principal investigators must often decrease the number of research technicians, support personnel and scientists conducting research in their labs. However, this decision need not decrease the quality of work if a principal investigator chooses to invest in the use of electronic laboratory notebooks.

Electronic laboratory notebooks have been shown to increase the efficiency and quality of work produced in a laboratory setting by clearly presenting all of the information pertaining to an experiment and all subsequent results in an easily accessible and searchable interface. Principal investigators can then use the information collected in their respective electronic laboratory notebooks to identify the most productive research members, determine the status of experiments and prepare grants in a methodical and clear manner, thus increasing the chances that a project is funded.

Having experimental data presented in electronic laboratory notebooks can also inform principal investigators of “missing holes” in the data that should be addressed before the grant or publication is submitted. In this way, the organization provided by electronic laboratory notebooks does not just assist in managing the details of running a lab, but also strongly influences and shapes the labs’ research directions and goals.

The BIOVIA Notebook is a complete system that enables data to be easily accessed and reanalyzed when necessary, and ensures that proper record-keeping standards are upheld in the lab to prevent problems later. To determine how your lab or institution can benefit from electronic laboratory notebooks, please visit our website today.

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