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Technology

Dec 6, 2012

Screw the grant process, scientists should go crowdsurfing

Young science researchers are often disadvantaged because funding agencies favour researchers with strong track records. Time to go online, says medical researcher Dr Timothy Moss.

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Last week a young US medical researcher from Princeton University successfully crowdsourced US$25,000 to fund a research experiment that will test amphetamines (such as crystal meth) on the brains of mice.

Researcher Ethan Perlstein used RocketHub, a crowdsourcing site for scientists and entrepreneurs, to raise the cash. It’s not a lot of money in medical research terms, but Perlstein might just have shown a way forward for Australia’s young research scientists struggling to get funding in difficult times.

Perlstein told Crikey his crowdfunding exercise restored his “academic soul” in an environment where the conventional process of obtaining research funding is “soul-crushing, especially for 20-something and 30-something scientists”.

Australia’s young health and medical researchers know just what Perlstein is talking about. They’re regularly told by senior colleagues to go away for a couple of years until research funding in Australia improves. And younger researchers are often disadvantaged because funding agencies look for a strong track record — difficult to establish for researchers early in their careers.

Perlstein’s success suggests young researchers might have an advantage when it comes to crowdfunding: their social networks. “My social media activity on Twitter was essential to our success,” Perlstein said.

“In the last 24 hours of our campaign, the surge that took us over the finish line included over 100 donors, about half of whom came from Twitter. Most of my colleagues would probably say that the amount of time and energy I invested in our campaign was not worth it.” Perlstein provided regular updates on Twitter and his (rather excellent) lab website.

The $25,000 raised is small change compared to the grants that fund long-term projects by big teams but, as Perlstein explains, in America’s National Institutes of Health funding program “80% of grant applications are rejected, and the average age at which an independent scientist receives his or her first big grant is 42”.

Perlstein is optimistic about the prospects of crowdfunding on a larger scale, to compete with large institutional grants. “We’re experiencing a global crowdfunding bubble,” he said. “I’m already aware of several science projects or science start-ups that have set ambitious $100,000-plus goals.”

Crowdsourcing has been a popular tool for Australian artists to fund creative work — ARIA award winners Eskimo Joe are running a Pozible campaign to create their next album — but scientists are yet to embrace it. The Australian Society for Medical Research, Australia’s peak society representing health and medical researchers, told Crikey it didn’t have any one “qualified to speak with any authority on this subject”.

“In recent years Australia’s standing among OECD countries has fallen in terms of government spending on health and medical research as a proportion of GDP.”

Medical researchers are stuck with established funding arrangements that are far from ideal, as highlighted by the hundreds of submissions to the federal government’s Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research, the McKeon review. While parts of the economy boom, government support for health and medical research funding is not keeping up. In recent years Australia’s standing among OECD countries has fallen in terms of government spending on health and medical research as a proportion of GDP.

Data from Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, the principal source of funds for health and medical research in Australia, shows spending flattening over recent years. Money for the People Support program, which funds Australia’s “best and brightest” health and medical researchers, has actually fallen from over $188 million in 2009 to under $150 million this year.

In the past three years, People Support has funded 399 Early Career Fellowships (ECFs) for recent PhD graduates, at a success rate of around 30%. At the next level, only 188 Career Development Fellowships (CDFs) were funded, at a success rate under 20%. ECFs and CDFs are only available to early career researchers and cannot be renewed. At the end of their ECF and CDF grants, many young researchers struggle to progress to the next level because more senior positions are just not available.

Senior research fellowships for established health and medical researchers numbered 257 for the last three years. The majority of these senior awards are made to renewing fellows who maintain their positions in the system for decades.

NHMRC estimates that more than 8500 local researchers are supported by its grants. The majority are funded by three-year project grants, which make up over half of NHMRC spending. This is where many ECF and CDF researchers end up.

This year, 731 NHMRC project grants were funded, at a success rate of 20.5% (much like the 20% success rate quoted by Perlstein for the US National Institutes of Health). A further 1861 applications (over half of all submissions) were deemed worthy of support but couldn’t be funded by the existing pool. Poor retention of researchers is the result.

The NHMRC has a “New Investigator Grant” scheme, aimed at increasing funding for projects which have not previously received substantial grant support. The success rate for the scheme this year was only 17.9%, and it’s consistently below the success rate for project grants to more established researchers.

Here is where crowdfunding could help. Researchers overseas are using it to support work that will generate preliminary data they can use to form the basis for bigger grant applications. Perlstein turned to crowdfunding so he could “keep pushing forward with new science”. By crowdfunding “the kind of small science that doesn’t receive attention from traditional big science funding sources”, young researchers can establish track records and begin to distinguish themselves to become more attractive prospects for large funding agencies.

It’s uncertain — many proposed projects don’t reach funding targets — but traditional grant funding models are not sure bets and can be a massive waste of researchers’ time. In an article in last year’s British Medical Journal, the administrative cost of NHMRC’s project grant funding round in 2009 was estimated at $47.87 million. Some 85% of this cost was attributable to the equivalent of 180 years of researcher time spent preparing applications.

*Timothy Moss is currently interning at Crikey as part of the Australia Science Media Centre’s internship program

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