Limited research budget? How sharing protocols can help

Are you finding your budgets and resources are increasingly squeezed? Having to put experiments on hold due to their cost? Rosa Lozano-Durán recently published confirmation of a protocol in BMC Research Notes. Here, she explains why sharing protocols can help science and ease budget restrictions.

Research budgets are being slashed throughout Europe and the US as a consequence of the financial and ensuing economic crisis. While this is globally affecting the way science is conducted, it is clear that some countries and institutions are more vulnerable than others.

Doing research in Spain, for example, is not an easy task nowadays. With the recession hitting hard and research expenditures trimmed to minimal limits, running a molecular biology laboratory is a constant challenge. The cuts in grants, PhD fellowships and postdoctoral programs have decimated the number of students and postdocs at the benches.

The successful few are frustrated by the slow pace of their research, which sometimes must even be stopped due to scarcity of funding. The situation is perhaps worst in molecular biology because of high consumables costs – budget limitations mean that many experiments simply cannot be done. Project prioritization and careful planning becomes a necessity. The counterpart is evident: promising lines of research must be abandoned, which frequently means letting years of effort and investment go down the drain.

The group of Eduardo R. Bejarano at the University of Málaga-Instituto de Hortofruticultura Subtropical y Mediterránea ‘La Mayora’ (UMA-IHSM-CSIC), where I did my Ph.D., has reached such a difficult situation. After years of leading a respected and internationally recognized group in plant virology, Eduardo is now struggling to continue ongoing productive lines of research and guarantee economical support for his staff.

Essential and once routine procedures, such as gene expression analysis, are now rationed.

In the lab, members have to constantly juggle things around to make ends meet. Doing their best to push their projects forward is not always enough. Essential and once routine procedures, such as gene expression analysis, are now rationed, because basic protocols, such as RNA extraction, require the use of expensive reagents.

The situation has reached the point where Eduardo and his team meet monthly to decide which gene expression experiments are the most urgent. The less fortunate lab students and postdocs will have to wait, wishing for better luck in one month’s time.

I left the Bejarano lab in 2011 to become a postdoctoral researcher at The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) in Norwich, UK, just as the economic crisis was taking off. Roughly one year ago, we happened to test and implement a published plant RNA extraction protocol (Oñate-Sanchez and Vicente-Carbajosa, 2008, BMC Research Notes).

One advantage of this method is that it does not require expensive reagents or kits yet still yields high-quality RNA in an easy and rapid manner. Soon after testing the method, I forwarded the protocol to Eduardo. Just one week later, I received an email from Edgar, then a postdoc in Eduardo’s group: he was very excited to confirm that, in his hands, the method worked very well, and was in fact twenty-five times cheaper than the protocol they were using before.

Astonishingly, the aftermath of this minor exchange of information can be colossal: RNA extraction may not be a bottleneck in the Bejarano lab anymore. The difference such a little knowledge transfer has had on the lab’s ability to conduct research is priceless.

It is appalling that a robust and cheap protocol had gone unnoticed by both my current and old labs despite having been available for about five years.

It is appalling that a robust and cheap protocol had gone unnoticed by both my current and old labs despite having been available for about five years. This indicates that useful information and methodology are not necessarily readily accessible to those who need them the most.

The data are out there, in the shape of scientific publications or entries to forum threads. But the amount of information is massive and users cannot always assess its reliability. Surely, a thorough ‘net surfer’ would probably be capable of extracting suitable information from the World Wide Web. But this takes valuable time; and not every scientist can be so thorough.

Also, finding is not retrieving. Useful methods may be hidden behind inaccessible paywalls; open access method journals are rare. This is why the simple act of sharing can really have an enormous impact.

With austerity research budgets at epidemic levels, sharing affordable protocols can make an enormous difference to research laboratories worldwide. We could think of it as making the gift of an opportunity to make more science for less.

Do you have a protocol that is affordable, reliable and efficient? If you like it, share it. Send it to your colleagues; submit it to a public repository; post it on Facebook; shout it from the roof tops. Whichever way you choose, you will be helping others do more science, better science. And this simple action would pay off with interest. No matter where you are, if RNA extractions are draining your limited budget, you know there are people out there who can help. Because there is one thing you can be sure of – you are not alone.

Rosa Lozano-Durán and colleagues have confirmed broad applicability of the aforementioned plant RNA extraction protocol (Oñate-Sanchez and Vicente-Carbajosa, 2008, BMC Research Notes) and shared it with the scientific community in Couto et al., 2015, BMC Research Notes.

Note: The author would like to thank Sophien Kamoun (The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich) for fruitful discussions and encouragement, and Eduardo R. Bejarano and Edgar A. Rodríguez-Negrete (University of Málaga) for agreeing to appear on this post.

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