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Should Governments Crowdsource Science Research Funding?

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Recently, I wrote about the trials and tribulations of social networks focused on scientific researchers. I painted a fairly dim picture. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are those in the scientific community who are interested in disruptive innovation within a somewhat traditional and reclusive community.

Here's another example of such innovation happening. Petridish.org is a new Web platform that empowers users to explore the world around them by participating in funding scientific research projects. Not unlike the well-known Kickstarter, the project owners set a minimum amount of dollars that need to be pledged for the project to happen, and a deadline to achieve that goal. Pledges can go above that goal, but if they fall below the goal by the deadline the entire project basically doesn't happen.

Not unlike what you may be used to seeing during a public television station pledge drive, there are different incentives offered by the researchers for different levels of pledges, too.

Let's explain how this works by way of an example. I'm a former insect biologist myself, so I have a certain weakness for things like flies, bees, and ants. Here's a project from Petridish.org all about ants: New Species of Ants in Madagascar, submitted by Brian Fisher, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences with an "infectious passion for ants." There's a video in the previous weblink, and here's part of the project description:

Deep in the tropical forests of Madagascar, a France-sized island teeming with strange creatures, ants glue together the richest of ecosystems. The tiny insects are armed to protect their homes with bites, stings, acid sprays and even strangling. Yet their real war against human encroachment is failing -- only 10 percent of Madagascar's natural habitat remains.

To save Madagascar's forests, researchers need to know what's in them.

I'm Brian Fisher, a conservationist with the California Academy of Sciences, and I'm ready to hop in a raft, navigate a wild uncharted river and scale treacherous cliffs with a team of extreme sports professionals as guides.

It's not about bragging rights, however -- it's a race against time.

Very dramatic! This sounds like a pretty decent movie description. In all seriousness though, in my experience a lot of researchers are not able to describe what they do to average people very well, never mind enhance their factual descriptions with colorful language. Granted, hunting for ants in a tropical forest is a little more exotic than your average research project, but that's besides the point.

Where will my money go?

Without discovering what Kasijy harbors it's tough to convince locals -- and the rest of the world -- that it and other Madagascar wilderness is worth preserving. For now it's a forest begging to be turned into firewood and grassland.

My expedition aims to:

Inventory Kasijy's untold new species and document their roles in a pristine natural ecosystem.
Understand the biodiversity patterns of Madagascar and resolve our "bioilliteracy" of the Kasijy forest.
Set up more robust conservation plans for the island.
Raise awareness of Madagascar's natural wonders and its ongoing plight.

But the logistics of five inflatable rafts, provisions, a small team of scientists and professional guides won't pay for itself. To enable the whirlwind expedition, I'll need $10,000. Another $10,000 would help support laboratory work, including the identification, description and publication of new species, and the training of local Malagasy scientists to do such work and become local stewards of their wilderness.

But hey -- what do I get out of my donation?? Here's some incentives:

  • At the 1-20 level, you're just helping the project and expect nothing.
  • At the 20-100 level, you get updates from the research team in the field.
  • At the 100-250 level, you get a small stone souvenir taken from the highest point in Madagascar, plus all of the above.
  • At the 250-500 level, you get an original signed photo from the field, plus all of the above.
  • At the 500-1000 level, you get recognition in scientific journals where the work is published, plus all of the above.
  • At the 1000-5000 level, you get a behind the scene tour of the CA Academy of Sciences, plus all of the above.
  • At the 5000+ level, the research team will name a novel species of ant after you or a loved one, plus all of the above.

Pretty cool stuff, and reasonable for the research team to provide as well. Imagine this as potential birthday or holiday gifts for sons or daughters or nieces or nephews interested in science. And this is just one project on Petridish.

What's the current status of Brian Fisher's project? They have $7,901 out of $10,000 needed with about 24 days to go at time of writing.

In the U.S, the federal government -- mainly via the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Departments of Energy and Defense -- is the largest funding resource for academic science research like what's described above with ants in Madagascar. Despite the relatively specialized nature of such research, there are nevertheless thousands and thousands of such projects just within the U.S., dreamed up by undergrads, grad students, postdocs, part-time and teaching faculty, and more senior full-time research professors and senior research scientists. Most of them do not get funded, because of the relative limits of government funds and the stiff competition.

And a lot of the research (like the ants of Madagascar) will not be funded by corporations because the work isn't applied enough. Sure, sure, the research could turn out something akin to Sean Connery's work in Medicine Man -- but more than likely not. Drug companies and similar organizations gamble, but usually at a more applied stage, not for the more basic levels of academic research.

What we have in America is a system by which many graduate students achieve their Ph.D.'s and often can secure a postdoctoral fellowship, but then are not able to then move to the next level with a tenured professorship and federal grant money. The reason? There are quite a few reasons. Some are practical -- obviously, a given university has limited office and lab space so they can't hire indefinite numbers of professors, no matter how good they are. Another practical reason is that some people, despite having a doctoral degree and some experience, are simply not cut out for being a tenured professor. But another huge reason is that significant research universities largely rely on professors to "pay their own way" via grants that fund research and from which schools can take a percentage for "indirect costs" like infrastructure (mail, lights, heat, electricity...).

Fair enough. There is a place for this system. But for the B+ and A- researchers (if you will) who have great ideas but for whatever disadvantages are not in the top tier of people who are getting large grants and landing top professorships, is there no alternative?

Companies like Fundageek and Petridish seem to have come up with one. Now anyone -- a smart high school student, a part-time high school science teacher, an overly ambitious grad student at Harvard, anyone -- can write some convincing text, have some amazing photo and video collateral, and pitch an idea and make their project come to life through a great crowdsourcing platform.

But why are private companies like Petridish and Fundageek providing platforms for this, while agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation aren't? Promoting and funding innovative projects which help America in some way seems like something the scientific and technically oriented arms of the U.S. government should be involved with. Perhaps there are some legal or other reasons why say the NIH can't run a crowdsourcing platform on a .gov website; I'd be curious to hear those facts/arguments. But perhaps government agencies should approach Petridish and Fundageek and others and find a way to build a public-private partnership which helps everyone -- government, private sector, and academia -- involved?

About seven years ago or so, the NIH started requiring two abstracts for submitted research grants -- one technical and one that could be understood by general audiences. At the time, I thought this was a great thing. Maybe something like what Petridish is doing with an array of videos, photos, text, and a way for citizens to participate is the next step for government support of scientific research. Of course, there will always be a role for direct government funding via grants; but might crowdsourcing not be a way to supplement the funding of great ideas, or alternatively fund "honorable mention" projects which show promise but don't make the cut for full government funding yet?

This week, a group of Senators introduced the CROWD FUND act, which would allow small companies and individual entrepreneurs to raise up to $1 million a year by making their case directly to investors via "crowdsourcing" -- perhaps this is the wave of the future?