A kilowatt-hour of electricity. A pound of spaghetti. A gallon of unleaded gasoline. These are just some of the items in the Consumer Price Index, a running tabulation of the costs of hundreds of commonly purchased goods and services. Inspired by that metric, Eos presents the Geoscientist Price Index, an inventory of some of the costs regularly incurred by geoscientists for equipment, fieldwork, publishing, and more.
The Consumer Price Index, compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics since 1919, tracks the prices of goods and services that an average consumer might buy every month. Its so-called market basket encompasses items in such categories as food, housing, apparel, education, and medical care. Not everyone purchases everything on the list, of course, but the Consumer Price Index is an effective means of gauging how inflation and buying power change over time, said Anna Miromanova, an economist at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. “How much stuff can I buy with my money?”
It’s a way of tracking the expenses that people regularly incur, said Miromanova, which is important to ensure that incomes keep pace with changes in the cost of living. “It doesn’t matter if I get paid $100 versus $10,000 if I don’t really have a frame of reference,” she explained.
To assemble the Geoscientist Price Index, Eos queried a wide range of researchers about both small- and large-ticket items they commonly use in their work. If you want to be a geoscientist, here’s what you might find in your market basket.
The Small Stuff
Simple tools, basic laboratory equipment, and other incidentals top the lists of small-ticket items for many geoscientists. For instance, Matthew S. Huber, a geologist at the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, South Africa, never embarks on fieldwork without his rock hammer. A good one costs only about 1,000 South African rand ($50), and in most cases, that’s a one-time purchase, said Huber. “Unless it falls down a cliff.” Plastic bags for holding rock samples are also a mainstay for Huber and his collaborators. A box of 500 bags, each 2.25 mil thick, costs in the ballpark of 1,300 South African rand ($70). That’s a worthwhile investment, said Huber. “A normal plastic bag like what you get from the grocery store is often not good enough.”
For scientists who work in more watery realms, things like test tubes, cover slips, and microscope slides are often in high demand. Francine McCarthy, a micropaleontologist at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., Canada, and her collaborators routinely analyze water samples and waterborne microorganisms like plankton. Basic laboratory glassware typically costs less than $1 Canadian ($0.70), but given their breakable nature, such items often have to be replaced. Lugol’s iodine, used for preserving plankton, is another mainstay in the McCarthy lab. A small bottle costs only about $15 Canadian ($11), but it’s used regularly, said McCarthy. “We have a vat of it in my lab.”
Many geoscientists today rely on digital tools. Such tools have significant advantages over the paper-based records that dominated fieldwork even just a few decades ago, but the up-front investment for the physical hardware can be substantial. Belle Philibosian, an earthquake scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Moffett Field, Calif., relies on mapping tools to record the precise locations of features like faults. A handheld tablet is Philibosian’s tool of choice; most cost in the range of $500–$800. There’s also the ongoing cost of software subscriptions for mapping programs, which can tack on $150 or so each year, said Philibosian. “Software is a big part of our costs.”
Philibosian furthermore makes use of a handheld GPS unit; most models cost between $100 and $800. The GPS on a smartphone works in a pinch, she said, but a dedicated unit can home in on a location much more precisely, to within a few meters. And when precision of a few centimeters is called for, Philibosian turns to a tripod-mounted GPS system. “If it’s a fault that’s moving very slowly over time, we’d really want to get those very precise measurements,” she said. Such a system can cost several thousand dollars, and a sturdy tripod will tack on about $200.
Laboratory analyses also represent a significant line item in many researchers’ budgets. Lee Florea, a hydrogeologist at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources in Olympia, routinely pays $300–$400 to have water samples chemically analyzed. And more specialized analyses—to detect certain isotopes of chlorine and iodine, for example—can cost upward of $2,000, said Florea. “Lab analysis can rack up pretty quickly.”
Costs are also associated with staying safe in potentially dangerous environments. Florea is a member of the Mt. Rainier Fumarole Cave Project—he helps out with hydrogeology- and geochemistry-related investigations of the Mount Rainier volcanic system. That work, which he does in his spare time, is an amalgam of caving and mountaineering, so having protective clothing, a sturdy helmet, and durable outdoor gear is a must, said Florea. A so-called rubber duck suit, designed to keep moisture out, runs about $200, he said. A helmet can add $100. Throw in a good tent, a climbing harness, climbing rope, carabiners, and an ice ax, and you’re looking at a significant investment, said Florea. “If you add it all up, you’re talking about a couple thousand dollars’ worth of gear.”
And for scientists like Huber who regularly do fieldwork in remote locations, the costs of renting vehicles, accommodations, fuel, and food while on the road are also considerations. A recent expedition to the Maremane Dome in South Africa cost 20,000 South African rand ($1,000) in vehicle rentals alone, said Huber.
Geoscientists often rely on items that cost more than $1,000. McCarthy’s lab has gone through two water quality meters in the past 5 years; each cost roughly $5,500 Canadian ($4,000). Unfortunately, fixing the instruments didn’t make financial sense, said McCarthy. “If they go on the fritz, usually it’s more expensive to get them fixed than it is to get new ones.”
Huber’s lab has invested in several single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras and an array of lenses and lights for photographing geological specimens. That equipment, paired with ongoing subscriptions for online data storage of images, has cost the team about 150,000 South African rand ($7,500), Huber estimates.
And it’s important not to forget about the costs of disseminating scientific results. Publishing a scientific manuscript in a well-regarded journal typically costs around $3,000 Canadian ($2,200), said McCarthy. “It adds up.”
And while truly big-ticket items like mass spectrometers can set a lab back hundreds of thousands of dollars, there’s a growing trend toward sharing such equipment. When Florea has sediments that need to be age dated, for example, he sends them off to a lab for analyses of their optically stimulated luminescence. Processing one sample costs $900, he said, but that’s far cheaper than investing in a dedicated instrument. Likewise, Huber buys time on a scanning electron microscope for 650 South African rand ($35) per hour. “That’s a pretty reasonable price,” he said. Huber also makes use of a 3D scanning app on his smartphone that can render light detection and ranging (lidar) images. “It’s pretty common nowadays that published pictures are coming from phones,” said Huber.
A geoscientist’s market basket is clearly varied. A deeper understanding of what staples constitute the Geoscientist Price Index might help researchers better understand inflation patterns over time—a practical purpose of the Consumer Price Index.
—Katherine Kornei (@KatherineKornei), Contributing Writer
15 November 2023: This article has been updated to clarify the cost of a tripod-mounted GPS.