A Simple Question About Vendors of Science

Sep 19 2014 Published by under Careerism, Ethics

Most laboratories buy stuff that they need to do their research. It varies. From latex gloves to pipette tips. From mice to bunnies. From cocaine to ABD-xld500BZN....whatever that is. Operant boxes to sequencers. Stuff.

All of these cost money which generally comes from the laboratory budgets. Startup, unattached funds if you have 'em and, for the most part research grants.

Consider this scenario.

We usually get our genotyping done outside of the lab. I mean, I could have this service performed in house by staff but there are many small vendors in my biotech/university/science community that will do it for us.

I met this guy at the bar. Or, maybe I recently ran into an old grad school friend. Some woman I postdoc'd with back in the day. A friend of my spouse. Whomever.

This person is starting up a brand new biotech support company, mom-and-pop kind of thing. This GenesRUs company is happy to take over our genotyping services.

I secure a quote. Wow. Two times the most expensive bottom line I came up with for doing it in-house that convinced me to hit the vendors in the first place. Maybe 3X the price of other locals.

But. But. This person is so nice. And we have a personal connection of some sort. Gee, they are still so small that they will come pick up from us at basically any time we want? And have results back prontissimo?

And you know. I HAVE the grant money. It isn't going to kill our budget to dump a few extra thousands on this top-cost option every year. Even if it amounts to tens of thousands, hey, it's just grant money, right?

The question, Dear Reader, is this.

Is it okay for me to use my PI's prerogative to spend my grant money this way? Just because I want to?

25 responses so far

  • becca says:

    What percent of the total grant are we talking about?

  • If you have a legitimate scientific justification--which could include quality of customer service, etc--then it is fine. If it is solely because of your personal relationship with the vendor, then it is not fine. This is not a difficult question.

  • And BTW, the "percent of the total grant" has fucke all to do with it.

  • dr24hours says:

    It's your budget, and if it's used in accordance with grant reports, and (and this is key), you're not getting a kickback or anything like that? They're really doing the work, they're charging you the same as they charge everyone else, etc.? If ALL that's true then: maybe.

    Do they do a better job and provide better services? Does that matter to your science? Can you look yourself in the eye and say you're being a good steward of taxpayer money? Of your lab's finite resources? Then ok. Do it.

    There's no ethical requirement to go with the least expensive option. But going with a very expensive option seems to require extraordinary justification. Not just "I like this dude."

  • drugmonkey says:

    becca- why don't you tell me the threshold percentage that would make a difference in your answer

    CPP- I can always claim the personal relationship had nothing to do with it, if asked. That's what everyone says in nepotism cases, yes?

    dr24hours- hmmm. I don't have time for mirrors.

  • dr24hours says:

    No one ever does. Or, if they do, they get accused of narcissism.

  • becca says:

    5%, *assuming* this is the only thing in your grant you haven't optimized by considering cost into your decisions. That's what the sequester took out of NIH, and it's fiscal impact probably greatly exceeded the specific figure due to uncertainty factors. I figure we as taxpayers deserve a good deal, but given that the system is imperfect, this is NOT the place we need to optimize it to achieve significantly increased ROI on biomed research $.

    There may be no legitimate scientific justification for non-black sharpies. You'll pry my purple sharpies out of my cold dead hands.

    That's assuming there's no benefit to society from having more players in the genotyping field. Which may not be true, in reality.

  • Dave Bridges says:

    If the service is better than the alternatives then sure, if its just because you like the guy then Id say no. I think we have a responsibility to spend taxpayer money in the most efficient manner, and not dole it out to folks we might want to grab a beer with. Im not saying this is the case here, but what if the rep is cute/flirty/available and that was what the root of the 'personal connection' was. Seems totally inappropriate.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ok. So $12,500 is the cutoff? I can *waste* that much on the overage? Or is that the base expense?

    I think we have a responsibility to spend taxpayer money in the most efficient manner, and not dole it out to folks we might want to grab a beer with.

    So we should seek bargains, market rate next and have damn good reason to go above that?

  • ericbgonzales says:

    Do labs with federal funding have similar debates when they see the flyers/newsletters advertising where "buy X amount of supplies you will receive this free mug/shirt/iPad/desktop soda can refrigerator?" Do they order what they need, or do they order more to qualify for the iPad?

    Just curious about that....

  • Dave Bridges says:

    I think its a time spent calculation. If you are spending 10% of your time finding a way to save 8c on Tris then its probably not a good idea on balance. If you can, by a quick googling, figure out equivalent items are cheaper one place than another and you don't have reason to mistrust one then yeah, bargain shopping seems best.

  • becca says:

    If you're pretty sure you're wasting <$12,500 total out of your $250,000 per year, I think it ranks somewhere between "I listen more to tall people" and "I ask more than my fair share of questions because I sit near the microphone at conferences" as Problems To Address.

  • Mom & Pop operations are going to be more expensive than bigger shops because of economies of scale, but 3X? No. That's unreasonable.

  • Ola says:

    I say no, but from a different angle:

    In my lab' we are not fans of "method creep" - that slow change that occurs to everyone's protocols over time, where new people come in and change one small step, and after a couple of years you find the method is being done in a completely different way. Changing vendors is a big contributor to this. Examples: bottle-top sterile filters (different plastics and solvents), heat-inactivated FBS (hugely variable in price and voodoo-magic-pixie-dust content), dry milk for western blotting (Walmart brand is probably fine but we use BioRad and pay dearly for it). Call it superstition, but if something works with that magical combination of pipet tips, Sigma brand glycine, and certain music playing in the lab, don't mess with it!

    If the vendor is willing to give a free sample, so we can compare it with our existing supply, then maybe we'll bite, but just being cheaper alone is usually not good enough - I'd rather pay more in order to have consistency and be able to compare data between experiments years apart. In this case DM, if the service is identical I'd say stick with the one you have already. Why change what works.

  • But do you have time for selfies? Those are like the mirrors of the modern age.

  • drugmonkey says:

    If you're pretty sure you're wasting <$12,500 total out of your $250,000 per year, I think it ranks somewhere between "I listen more to tall people" and "I ask more than my fair share of questions because I sit near the microphone at conferences" as Problems To Address.

    What if this would otherwise go to give two postdoc a $5K raise each?

    In my lab' we are not fans of "method creep"

    So to turn this around, what if the more expensive option allowed you to prevent method creep? How much is that worth? Tens of thousands per year off of a grant? What if the service you already have is not quite optimal but you basically fear change- is that worth the extra $$?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Some of you people seem awfully unconcerned about bias, nepotism and funneling extra federal tax payer money into the hands of people just because you can.

  • dr24hours says:

    RE: nepotism, etc.,

    You're right. Shouldn't do it because of the appearance of impropriety, even if there is none.

  • Hint to all of you: THERE ARE FUCKEN FEDERAL COST PRINCIPLES THAT YOU ARE OBLIGATED TO FOLLOW BY FEDERAL LAWS AND REGULATIONS. THESE PRINCIPLES DETERMINE THE ANSWER TO DOUCHEMONKEY'S QUESTION.

  • But I can do a sole source justification for my Bentley, right?

  • neuromusic says:

    LMFTFY...

    We usually get our genotyping done outside of the lab. I mean, I could have this service performed in house by staff but there are many small vendors in my biotech/university/science community that will do it for us.

    I met this guy at the bar. Or, maybe I recently ran into an old grad school friend. Some woman I postdoc'd with back in the day. A friend of my spouse. Whomever.

    This person has a grad student who is finishing up who is REALLY GOOD at genotyping. They are looking for a postdoc and they are happy to take over our genotyping services once they are in the lab.

    I invite them out for an interview. They are just as good as any other PD with solid rec letters, plus the genotyping thing. I ask them their salary expectations. Wow. The premium to hire them (above what I'm paying my other PDs) is two times the most expensive bottom line I came up with for doing it in-house that convinced me to hire someone with this specific expertise in the first place.

    But. But. This person is so nice. And we have a personal connection of some sort. And they have two kids and a spouse that won't have a job here for a few months. Since they are in-house they can do it basically any time we want? And have results back prontissimo?

    And you know. I HAVE the grant money. It isn't going to kill our budget to dump a few extra thousands on this top-cost option every year. Even if it amounts to tens of thousands, hey, it's just grant money, right?

    (confession: I have no idea what would make someone REALLY GOOD at genotyping, so this adaptation of DM's scenario might make no sense. just roll with it.)

  • thorazine says:

    So why the fuck aren't you telling your buddy they're pricing themselves out of the market? Because, if they're such great pals I'm willing to contemplate violating procurement rules just to send them a few bucks, surely they're good enough pals that you can tell them this?

  • […] growing tired of the shenanigans got […]

  • drugmonkey says:

    Neuromusic wins the prize of the day for working out what in the hell this post was really about.

    See next post.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    You can pay more if you know there is a definite reason why the service is better...and would be willing and proud to explain that to an auditor. If the reason you know why a particular company is better than another is through personal knowledge (subject of email: awesometech123 moved companies ) then that should be fine.

    I'd be more skeptical of someone in sales, even though that's certainly their job. Salespeople change companies and certainly try to keep their clients. I wouldn't change vendors because they are nice people. I am lucky to have some reps that do work really hard: cross-ship for bad shipments, work late or on weekends on quotes for grant applications I've applied for (I gave them plenty of time, they just did it then...probably how a lot of us just do random busy-work late at night). etc etc. That kind of service really can speed up your work and never forget that time costs pretty much more than anything else you are doing with your funds. Still, changing companies to follow a sales rep would be a tough sell for me.

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