Birmingham, Ala.– In the past decade, it’s gotten much harder for scientists to get the federal grants that fund the vast majority of American research. This year’s sequester has made it even more difficult, and the government shutdown is likely to slow things down even further. So scientists are looking for new ways to pay for their work, including “crowdfunding.” But going online and asking the public for money has real drawbacks. Even so, as Alabama reporter Dan Carsen tells us, some think it could open up the field in a good way:
Science is about the pursuit of knowledge, but working scientists will tell you there’s a lot more to it. The politics reach from local labs to the U.S. Congress. And then there’s the money-scrounging. Research dollars boost the whole economy, but that doesn’t mean there’s enough funding out there to run labs or find cures.
“Researchers with great ideas, with a lot of potential, that can save lives, don’t get enough funding to bring these treatments to the people who need it the most,” says former cancer researcher Larry Lawal. He worries that while we’re cutting science budgets, other nations are expanding them. So he recently left medical school to start a new company called HealthFundIt.
“People who care about different diseases can go online, connect with researchers doing groundbreaking work, and donate a small amount,” he says. “It’s to democratize funding, and give everyday people a voice and a chance to make things happen.”
Lawal’s company will have expert scientists reviewing proposals. But that’s not how it’ll work everywhere, and even pro-crowdfunding experts see a problem. Claremont University research policy expert David Drew is one of them.
“There could be money wasted on projects that are ridiculous,” he says. “Unlike submitting a proposal to the National Science Foundation, [or] the National Institutes of Health, there’s no quality review of the scientific merit of the idea.”
Still, Drew thinks crowdfunding’s benefits outweigh that risk because it’s spread among voluntary investors. And he says expert review will happen later in the process as researchers try to get published.
But in the bigger picture, many doubt crowdfunding could raise, say, twenty million dollars for a clinical drug trial. And making ideas or data so public opens them up to theft. And finally, there’s the issue of safety if research is done without traditional oversight.
“If the research is being done by someone at a university, there’s a good chance it’ll be reviewed by their I.R.B. — institutional review board,” says Drew. “But with crowdfunding, possibly not. And it is of vital importance.”It all depends on the particular companies, most of which are still evolving. But at the University of Alabama at Birmingham there’s a social scientist who’s already had crowdfunding success: Pia Sen raised twenty-two thousand dollars for gun policy research through an online portal called Microryza. I asked her if crowdfunding could take scientific merit out of the equation and make research a popularity or public-relations contest. She doesn’t think so.
“Here, I’m putting out a proposal for all the world to see, including my peers,” she says. “I think the fear of being made to look like an idiot in front of your peers is a good deterrent for not putting up anything that’s absolutely terrible.”
More and more researchers say today’s funding climate is pushing them toward unconventional sources. One told me competition for grants is “like something out of Thunderdome.” Another says we’re close to “losing a generation of scientists.” But Drew thinks crowdfunding will help less-established researchers who go against conventional wisdom. And he’s got a well-known example:
“Einstein went to work in the patent office in Switzerland because he did not get the university jobs that he wanted. And, from this unlikely spot, he produced the most important research and theorizing of the twentieth century. There are all kinds of people out there with creative ideas, and the more resources we have to fund them, the better.”
Especially after this year’s sequester cuts, researchers say it’s a bad time to have a good idea. Crowdfunding could help change that. And that might benefit us all, assuming next year doesn’t become a good time to have a bad idea.