The government loves to tell us scientists how good we are at doing ‘more with less’. Over at the Guardian, I’ve posted yesterday about how the UK’s core research budget is again under threat, with the possibility of up to 40% cuts to be announced at the Spending Review in November.
I’ve also summarized how things have been tight ever since that budget was frozen in real terms in 2010. Many highly respected scientists I know are spending all of their waking hours submitting grants and facing a string of rejections. Even high-scoring grants often cannot be funded: as the price of research goes up with inflation, the pool of available funds is depreciated by it.
Of course grant writing is good for focusing your thoughts and honing experimental plans. But to be a successful scientist, you also need to spend time writing papers, supervising your team and helping to analyze the data. Many of us also have to teach and sit on committees. When you’re in the throes of a grant application, other stuff tends to go out the window – which ultimately isn’t good for your team or for your science. We may be doing more with less, but imagine how much more scientific output we could produce if we had better resources – and if the perilous funding situation didn’t put people off taking the risks that are often required to break new ground.
Anyway, I’m doing my bit for the more-for-less thing. Long-term followers of this blog may remember my descriptions of several home-made pieces of lab equipment crafted out of cheap starting materials, including plywood, tin foil and a baby bottle sterilizer. Several years later, we’re having to be increasingly creative.
Behold this piece of kit:
I love it because it reminds me of the beautifully crafted old instruments that you can see in the Wellcome Collection at the Science Museum: weighty, shiny, brimming with purpose. It’s a perfusion chamber, which one of my PhD students, Harry, uses to grow a three-dimensional bladder tissue in the context of urine flow, coaxed into life from progenitor cells – and a bit of love. When hooked up to a peristaltic pump, the top (apical) side of the epithelial layer is exposed to urine, while the bottom (basal) layer is fed with a special growth media mimicking the blood supply. So far, this exciting model is proving superior to standard cell culture, and we hope it will be better than any rodent model. Harry is using it to understand chronic bacterial infection – a big problem in the elderly – and to test novel ways of treating it. We also use similar chambers to grow biofilms: slimy communities of bacteria ganging together for protection from the immune system and antibiotic treatment.
The downside of such chambers is that you can only grow one model at a time, and they cost hundreds of pounds. So until we get our next major grant, we’ve got to improvise if we want to compare different conditions.
Harry had a think and came up with this little beauty:
Comprised of a plastic tissue culture plate and a few needles, this workaround probably costs only a few quid. Unfortunately it’s not appropriate for growing the bladder model, but it seems to be good enough for biofilms. One of our summer students, Amy, is busy growing up biofilms from patients and trying out different ways of killing them (the biofilms, not the patients!). Once we narrow conditions down a bit, we can run the experiments a few times in the expensive chamber to generate the official data.
So far, we’re still in the ‘fun’ stage of resource depletion, akin to the triumphant feeling you get when you’re camping and manage to cook up a full English breakfast over the fire. But I’ve just had one grant rejected, and two more are pending.