The pace, direction, and application of scientific research are largely determined by the availability of money. At an individual level, grant applications consume a great deal of professional time; and gossip about funding successes and failures, along with speculation about donor intentions, fuels hope or opens the door to despair. Yet despite the importance of money, many scientists seem to be as shy about mentioning it in public as our Victorian ancestors were in talking about sex.
Over the past decade, more and more journals have begun to demand that authors declare any possible conflicts of interest, such as owning stock in the company that finances the research. Such declarations are useful, but I want to suggest that journals require a second statement: How much did the work cost?
At a minimum, we are likely to be interested in knowing what our colleague's research cost to complete, but the need for financial transparency goes much deeper. The details of expenditure might be meaningless when describing a new species of sea urchin, and there could be commercial reasons for keeping some costs confidential, but where government or foundations fund science, explicit expenditure statements would bring many benefits. Data on costs would aid research planning, assist in the optimum allocation of resources, enhance evaluation, and improve efficiency.
The more scientists know about what it costs for others to achieve their goals, the more likely they will better manage their own work in the future. A well-defined budget tells a scientist how long it will take and what effort is required to complete a particular task, be it building a cyclotron in Chicago or studying lemurs in Madagascar. Professionals who work in foundations know it is almost as difficult allocating money as it is trying to raise it. Knowing the price tag of actual units of work funded by a variety of donors and conducted in a range of settings would be exceedingly useful. Large discrepancies between the costs of similar items would help identify inefficacies and also could generate useful competition between colleagues in similar fields, to see who can be most cost-effective.
In the particular area of international health where I work, a statement on the cost of items used for research would be especially useful. The health budgets of many developing countries comprise less than $10.00 per capita. Areas such as HIV/AIDS prevention are filled with pilot projects. However successful or original a field project may have been, it is virtually meaningless unless readers know what expenses are involved. A lack of attention to finances can seriously undermine the usefulness of a piece of work. A recent evaluation involving more than $70 million spent by a large nongovernmental organization working on reproductive health and family planning in low-income countries found that the average clinic they ran saw only between three and four clients a week. As they publish a good many studies in refereed journals, the obligation to disclose the price tags might have alerted the institution itself and their sponsors to serious inefficiencies at an earlier stage.
Cost can even frame ethics in new ways. Currently, the price of monitoring each volunteer in a Phase II clinical trial of one microbicide (a vaginal substance a woman could use to protect herself from HIV when she cannot negotiate condom use with her partner) costs about 10 times the annual per capita income of the country where it was tested. A planned Phase III trial is projected to cost more than the annual budget of several ministries of health in Africa. When expenses such as these are spelled out, people will be encouraged to ask tough questions.
And on a more personal note: This article took some time to think about and perhaps half a day to write. Taking into account heating, lighting, the text processor, and my time and fringe benefits, it may have cost $500 to $1,000 to produce. I don't like my own calculation, because as someone working in international health, I need to remind myself that two billion people on this planet each live on less than $1,000 a year.
Malcolm Potts is the Bixby Professor of Population and Family Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. He has worked for 35 years in international family planning, 20 of them in efforts to slow HIV/AIDS in Africa and elsewhere.