October 10

Kickstarting Science

Science has a problem.  Government research funding is on the decline and competition for this grant money is on the rise. A researcher must spend a large amount of his or her time trying to wrangle money from government agencies or private foundations to keep his or her lab afloat.  The commitment to writing grants can trump the commitment to focusing on current research and on the mentoring of students.  The increased competition for grants may mean that more novel or risky projects might not make the cut.  Leave it to the burgeoning collective financing trend to make its way into the science funding platform.

A recent “ask me anything” (AMA) forum by Ken Paller, the director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University (and a graduate of UCSD’s neuroscience program!) directed me to the crowdfunding website experiment.com for a project from his lab called, “Inception: Can we implant false memories during sleep?” (read our own Daniel Knowland’s article for his take on the possibility).  The nod to the blockbuster film, “Inception”, drew my interest and a search of other proposals on the website mostly yielded projects that had sexy titles, were fairly straightforward, or would have direct impact on human well-being or on wildlife conservation efforts. This raises the question of how projects with less direct impact or with less easy-to-understand objectives will have a place in this new funding niche.

In contrast to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) or a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant proposal which may require background with citations, preliminary data, detailed methods, power analyses, etc., crowdfunding sites such as experiment.com (see below for other websites like it) may only require a brief abstract that leaves a scientist like myself wondering, “But how? But why?” In describing how Paller’s team would implant false memories during sleep, they simply stated they would “use an established method for creating false memories” without further elaborating or citing a paper describing this technique. With fewer requirements and less oversight of the funds, the danger is that projects without a clearly defined research plan may unwittingly get funded.  Furthermore, the grant review process, while arduous and slow, may allow the scientist invaluable feedback that can elevate the quality of the project.

Despite the pros and cons of the public deciding on the fate of the proposed projects, an extra source of capital for scientists may lift some of the burden of grant writing off of their shoulders.  Most of the fundraising scientists were seeking funding for expenses such as laboratory materials, conference and journal application fees, travel, and technician salaries. Louisa Edgerly says in her petridish.org solicitation video to fund her studies on pandemic prevention, “Many people have asked me why I don’t just get a government grant or get money from the Gates Foundation.  Of course, these are great ways to support a project long term, but grants can take months or even years to produce any money.  Crowdfunding has the advantage of making the money available immediately.”  How much money can websites like experiment.com bring in for a project?  Experiment.com claims to have a median funding rate of forty-five hundred and a mean of six thousand.  The hundreds of thousands one can garner in a large government grant dwarf the funding scientists are receiving through crowdfunding.  Thus, at the moment, the crowdfunding market is unlikely to significantly change the current grant situation for eager scientists.  However, it may offer the seed money needed to collect preliminary data that could be invaluable to securing a later grant.

The beauty of the crowdfunding model is the unique opportunity for donors to connect with the scientific community and engage in the scientific process.  Many of the fundraisers upload immersive video and graphical content explaining their research and updating the donors on their progress.  Some researchers went so far as to invite large donors to their lab for a personal tour and a tête- à-tête rundown of the project.  To gain funding, scientists will have to rise to the challenge of communicating their research to the public which will hopefully translate into a more informed and empowered community of “citizen scientists”.

Crowdfunding of scientific endeavors is still in its infancy and there is room to grow both in the amount of money backers are willing to contribute and in the process of choosing projects with scientific merit. As I sit here writing this article and procrastinating an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program application, I daydream of starting a crowdfunding attempt to raise the nearly one-hundred thousand that I could receive through the NSF funding.  Sadly, I would probably have a better chance raising money if I made potato salad instead of studying neuroscience.

List of Science Crowdfunding Websites: