19 August 2014
Crowdfunding has recently became a popular method of funding new tech or entertainment products or artistic projects. It allows people to ask for many small donations from individuals who support the proposed work, rather than a large amount from a single source. Now researchers are turning to crowdfunding, too.
Academic researchers are one of the few types professionals who have to spend a large amount of time throughout their entire career cajoling for money just to keep their job.
It’s hard to get grants. It’s a lot of work to apply for them, and many are not awarded. Apparently, of the roughly 10,000 research ideas submitted to government research funding schemes, such as those run by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council, only about 20% are funded.
Researchers who don’t get the funding they apply for may have to switch projects, or even close down their project. Even when there is money to keep the lab afloat, money is tight, and many side projects fall by the wayside.
Free the Frog (… of Pesticides)
A team of La Trobe University researchers led Bert De Groef is using the crowdsourcing website Pozible to raise funds for a project to measure the effect on native frog populations of a common insecticide. Among other other techniques, they will use a state-of-the-art and very sensitive ‘glowing tadpole’ test developed by French collaborators. In this test, tadpoles from Xenopus, the South African clawed toad, glow when they are exposed to low concentrations of hormone-disrupting chemicals – thus identifying problematic environmental chemicals. We will also test how the pesticide affects gene expression in these tadpoles.
The estimated cost of the materials to be used in the project is $10,500. All contributions above $2 are tax deductible and for $10 and up there’s a “reward” (such as a postcard, bumper sticker, all the way up to a guided tour of the laboratory).
In heart disease, the same stuff that makes snot green finds its way into the body’s arteries, making their walls sticky and prone to damage.
Sydney medical researcher Martin Rees and his team want to understand how these inflammatory proteins cause havoc so they can develop drugs that target them.
With heart disease one of the leading causes of death in Australia, its easy to imagine this project’s potential.
But Rees faces a problem many young researchers with brilliant ideas experience. After narrowly missing out on the latest round of highly competitive government grant funding, Dr Rees has run out of money to continue his research.
Rather than abandon their ideas and leave research for more lucrative corporate careers, a growing number of early-career scientists are appealing to the public to raise money through crowd funding websites.
Dr Rees’ campaign is one of the first to launch on Thinkable, a website for researchers to explain their research to the public and seek sponsorship.
The site’s founder, University of NSW oceanographer Ben McNeil said the idea of Thinkable is to carry the public along the journey of a particular research area, not just support a single project.
It’s trying to open up the world of research, and engage the public in a much better way that isn’t based on scientific jargon,” he said.
Dr McNeil is a strong advocate for early-career researchers, partly because studies show they are most productive and creative, and because the current funding system does not work in their favour.
The average age of a researcher awarded grant money is mid 40s. And although the ARC and the NHMRC provide specific funding for early-career researchers, the number of researchers far outweighs the number of grants awarded each year.
Many early-career researchers are often employed by institutes or universities on short-term contracts. Dr Rees, whose contract at UNSW ended in July, says people who stay in science are passionate because “there are so many slings and arrows that no one stays in research for long if they’re not totally invested in it”.
“Any money I get from the crowd funding will keep me in the lab for an extra day,” said Dr Rees.
Melanie Thomson, an infectious disease researcher from Deakin University who has run two crowd funding campaigns with website Pozible, said the success of crowd funding for science came from the public having direct access to scientists and their work.
“What you’re really doing is giving [the public] access to boffins,” she said.
While the more than $20,000 raised by both campaigns was small compared to the money handed out by government grants, Dr Thomson said the money has paid for the expensive chemicals and reagents she uses in her research.