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Oct 18 2012

It has come to this?

I worry a little bit about the direction research funding is going. It’s shrinking, and people are looking for creative methods to fund basic research — like this crowd-sourced project to study the neuropharmacology of amphetamines. It looks like a worthy effort and I wish the investigator well, but whoa, where are we going? Are researchers going to have to sing and dance on street corners with their hats out to eke out funds to support their obscure and esoteric efforts?

It’s also going to skew funding in new ways (not that our existing methods don’t bias the directions research takes). Which would you throw a few dollars at: biomedical research into human mental health, or a pure science project to study bone morphology in some species of herps?

But don’t let my general reservations hinder you: if you think the work looks cool, help them out.

43 comments

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  1. 1
    steve84

    http://xkcd.com/1022/

  2. 2
    Avicenna

    It’s kind of bizzare. I heard about it but it really is the deathnell of progress. Particularly in physics…

    Our science is heavily applied. I can categorically explain what doing research into a drug will do (AKA Why are you studying dengue fever, because I can fight it!).

    However physics? It’s so weird and wonderful and a far cry from our basic science that most people cannot see the point. They still think the LHC is a Black Hole Gun that nearly destroyed the planet. (Or caused an invasion from Xen by the Combine…)

    I fear for chemistry and physics.

    In addition any research using animals is pretty much doomed to this kind of fund raising. It’s probably not going to be this bad, but its not a good thing.

  3. 3
    raven

    It looks like a worthy effort and I wish the investigator well, but whoa, where are we going?

    A lot of it is going overseas.

    The correlation between science funding and economic growth is common knowledge.

    While our budgets are comatose, countries like Singapore and China are pouring money into their science and tech R&D.

  4. 4
    lordofsporks

    One problem I can see is that people may not know what they’re supporting. I can imagine gullible woo-believers giving money to hacks attempting to discover the miraculous power of water that’s somehow not just water, and exposing the horrors of how the government created HIV to control the population.

  5. 5
    kevinalexander

    So now Templeton can spend a few bucks on advertising to direct influence the crowd.

  6. 6
    Bronze Dog

    Well, you could try Kickstarter.

  7. 7
    cswella

    One problem I can see is that people may not know what they’re supporting. I can imagine gullible woo-believers giving money to hacks attempting to discover the miraculous power of water that’s somehow not just water, and exposing the horrors of how the government created HIV to control the population.

    I wonder if it’s possible to create a sort of “Peer Reviewed” version of Kickstarter?

  8. 8
    stephencurry

    It is an interesting though somewhat concerning development. I wrote about an attempt to crowd-fund development of a cancer treatment in Sweden recently, which had got stuck for want of funding through normal channels.

    Crowd-sourcing potentially provides good opportunities for public engagement but I would be worried if they became the norm!

  9. 9
    Mal Adapted

    Everybody knows keed spills!

  10. 10
    chigau (違う)

    Mal Adapted
    wow
    That brings back memories.
    I think.

  11. 11
    carlie

    Are researchers going to have to sing and dance on street corners with their hats out to eke out funds to support their obscure and esoteric efforts?

    It’s everything of value related to learning about stuff.

    I’ll repeat what I wrote in the lounge yesterday:

    God damn it. I am easily angered by everything at the moment, but this really hacks me off: story.

    Mr. Sollecito is the much loved music teacher at Howard Wood Elementary School in Torrance, CA. He inspires his students and makes music fun, despite the fact that he doesn’t have his own classroom and that most of his students can’t afford instruments. Watch as the Ultimate Surprises team transforms an empty space into a dream music room that will have Mr. Sollecito and the kids singing a happy tune.

    It is a fucking reality tv pull-the-heartstrings aren’t-we-great story that A TEACHER GOT A ROOM TO TEACH IN AND EQUIPMENT TO TEACH WITH. This is how pathetic education has gotten in this country, that having a room and equipment is something you can’t get except by winning a spot on a reality tv show.

    ***

    And, apparently, you have to crowdsource basic research.

  12. 12
    janiceintoronto

    Does anyone in power in your country understand that research is what made the U.S. the powerhouse it used to be? You are being led by dolts who value war more than science. America is becoming a has-been that’s seen its best days fall far behind. Ever seen the rust belt in the northeast? That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Look at Detroit for a perfect example. It’s a ghost town.

    Too bad for you, but other countries are glad to pick up the slack.

    Sadly, my country depends on your economy to stay economically solvent, and it’s way scary to see what the U.S. is becoming.

    Basically, the west is just screwed…

    Worst of all is that there’s no Planet B to move to.

  13. 13
    Akira MacKenzie

    Sigh… Back in my benighted days as a libertarian, I read L. Neil Smith’s series of propaganda science fiction novels that took place in an anarcho-capitalist utopia. In the first novel, the series’ main character discovers that his wife has a fatal disease that is incurable even with the magical technology that a world with an absolute free market and no regulations is supposed to produce. Since the woman was on borrowed time and there were none of those evil, freedom-destroying governments to steal the productive capacity of the achievers, they put her in suspended animation and started up a charity fund to find a cure.

    This was considered by the author (and, admittedly, myself at the time) a GOOD idea.

  14. 14
    jebyrnes

    I disagree that this is anything new. (full disclosure, I’m a co-founder of the #SciFund Challenge, a science crowdfunding organization at http://scifundchallenge.org and we’re about to run out third round!)

    Yes, funding rates from the Government have declined. Foundation money may be experiencing similar declines (although I don’t have any numbers on it – just anecdotes…which I know are not data when combined – HA!)

    But the trend of asking scientists, OK, why is your work relevant is neither unique to crowdfunding nor is it necessarily a bad thing.

    On the Uniqueness front, one only needs to look at how NSF has beefed up their requirements for broader impacts in recent years to see that at the agency levels, being able to get outside of the ivory tower and make your science part of the public conversation is being recognized as important at the highest levels. Indeed, one argument for the rise in science denialism is precisely that the ties between science and society are not as strong as they could be. So, the use of crowdfunding is going up, precisely as we push across science to increase our public profile. Not surprising. Heck, Jai and I created #SciFund specifically as a means to promote science outreach and engagement.

    On the ‘song and dance’ front for esoteric research, this line of thinking both underestimates the ability of scientists to communicate (with a little training) why their totally nerdy esoteric work is interesting on the one hand, and also suggests the idea that there is science that exists that is so boring that no one would ever be interested in it. I disagree! And I offer myself as witness. I successfully (well, didn’t totally meet my goal, but came close! And have funded research!) crowdfunded an effort to quantify measurement error in sampling of a long-term data set. Quantifying measurement error? SNOOZE! But it forced me to sit back and think about why is such an esoteric topic important, where does it come from, and why do I find it so fascinating. Butting those threads together – boom, crowdfunding proposal. Far from making scientists ‘sing and dance,’ crowdfunding asks scientists to show us their passion. There are few better ways to connect with an audience than through passion.

    Frankly, I think it’s great that we have yet another means to fund research. Currently it’s only bringing in small pots of money, but that may change as with any discipline that crowdfunds. Furthermore, he rise of crowdfunding might be driven in part by government money decreasing, but I don’t think you can argue the opposite – as, if you do, then you must also argue that the growth of foundations is killing government science funding.

    So, yeah, crowdfunding. It’s out there. It’s a great thing to use to help bring your research into contact with the larger world around you. And, frankly, you should be communicating with a broader audience about your work. But is crowdfunding a threat to traditional funding sources? Doubtful.

    I guess to answer the question Which would you throw a few dollars at: biomedical research into human mental health, or a pure science project to study bone morphology in some species of herps? I would have to say it all depends on how well the scientist in question can communicate why their work is important and interesting. Yes, the biomed research may have a large audience to start with. But a herper – well, actually, chosing herps is a bad idea, as there is a rabid herps community out there – but, let’s say it was for…voles. A vole bone morphologist who worked at outreach and engagement and built an audience for their work, they’ll do just fine.

  15. 15
    tomallen
  16. 16
    jonathanmartin

    Man, if only there were some way to have a peer-reviewed crowd-sourced funding mechanism for supporting robust scientific research, where everyone giving just a little money would add up to a lot… if only…

    Oh wait, we HAD THAT before our governments decided that science wasn’t a worthwhile investment. It’s called TAX REVENUE and the NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION, or here in Canada, NSERC. *headdesk*

  17. 17
    harvardmba

    Great news. Now we don’t have to have our tax dollars taken from us, forced to support the torture of sentient animals. I appreciate that.

  18. 18
    Ing

    Great news. Now we don’t have to have our tax dollars taken from us, forced to support the torture of sentient animals. I appreciate that.

    I presume you hope of course that such independent funding doesn’t mean that people will be free of ethics boards and test animal protocols?

  19. 19
    Kevin

    The vast majority of animal torture research is privately funded. Except for the research into killing bipedal animals that wear clothing and organize themselves into groups — one of which we call “the enemy”. The government’s 100% behind that.

    Seriously, have you any idea how much HUMAN suffering animal research prevents. Please go fuck yourself sideways with a rusty porcupine for suggesting that researchers conduct experiments with animals merely to get their jollies.

  20. 20
    Kevin

    And now for a separate topic — the “brain drain” and US competitiveness.

    I will be attending a large medical conference next week where a wide range of research topics will be presented. Since the conference organizers have provided the abstracts online, I already know exactly what I’ll be looking at. Fantastic time-saver; but that’s not the point. The point is that every abstract is attached to the name of the researcher in charge.

    Out of the 20 presentations I’ll be covering, the lead author for all but 2 are obviously non-US-citizens. No, I’m not suggesting that only guys named “Ted Baxter” are native US citizens. But it doesn’t take a genius either to see that Quen and Mohammed and Ravi are probably not originally from San Jose.

    And I’ve attended quite a number of these meetings over the years so I have direct experience to draw from — maybe 1 in 25 of those with “foreign-sounding” names turn out to be from Oxnard. The rest are foreign-sounding because they’re from Shanghai or Dubai or Mumbai.

    The US is training an amazing set of scientists. The vast majority of whom are not staying here. They’re taking their knowledge back to their own countries.

    Our brains aren’t being “drained”…they’re not being trained in the first place.

  21. 21
    Keith Peterson

    Why don’t researchers and engineers get to together to set up a science/technology cooperative where researchers can do whatever research the cooperative deems appropriate; where engineers can make whatever goods they want and put any of those on the market? The salaries of the business are paid for buy the business, and any profits go to fund research. The whole thing would self-sufficient: making it close to free from government and private influences, and worker owned: each worker would be given one vote on issues of how to run the cooperative and half equal ownership (and thus, equal responsibility) of the cooperative.

    You probably think I’m crazy.

  22. 22
    Ing

    The whole thing would self-sufficient:

    No it wouldn’t. I heard nothing about mining, smelting, or agriculture in there.

  23. 23
    Ing

    @Keith

    On a separate note a lot of important research yields nothing profitable for a long time and there is research needed that isn’t profitable (treating rare diseases for example or solar power in a market dominated by fossil fuel interests)

    PLus there’s the problem of vested interest if anyone who would be peer reviewing stands to gain from the success of research.

    And the problem of supply lines and maintenance, Engineers can’t do much without skilled labor, researchers need a vast infrastructure of technicians to process samples, produce materials etc etc.

  24. 24
    Rutee Katreya

    That’s cute and all, Kevin, but I ask you the same thing I ask Randroids who think they can make a Galt’s Gulch:
    Who’s going to fucking build it?

  25. 25
    Rutee Katreya

    Keith, my bad.

  26. 26
    Ing

    @Rutee

    Or run it

    Pipettes don’t grow on trees

  27. 27
    raven

    Why don’t researchers and engineers get to together to set up a science/technology cooperative where researchers can do whatever research the cooperative deems appropriate;…

    We have already.

    It’s called…a society. The one I belong to is known as the USA.

  28. 28
    Ysanne

    @21 Keith,
    let me guess: You haven’t been to a university committee meeting yet, right? Scientists, especially when they are trying to run anything as a “collective”, are no better at cooperating than any other group of people with similar interests but competing individual goals.
    In my experience, that means a lot of bickering and power games, then some half-assed solution is quickly agreed upon when participants realise that they need a result to show, and then it’s back to power games and trying to use/change/re-interpret/sabotage the agreed plan to one’s own advantage.

    Oh, and as a lot of others pointed out, for basic working, a business needs an actual business concept (i.e. what to sell to whom), appropriate marketing (i.e. actually selling the stuff) and strategic planning (i.e. knowing what to sell tomorrow), as well as starting capital as well as ongoing resources to generate whatever it’s trying to sell.
    And then we haven’t even talked about how many expensive-to-run branches of research have no commercial applications for decades, and obviously it’s exactly these that are in need of funding.

  29. 29
    Keith Peterson

    @Ing

    I’m well aware that a lot of research isn’t profitable, especially in the early phases. It may not be ideal for the pace of research some may want, but at least it a) employs researchers and engineers and gives them something to do and b) gives them some control on what they want to research or engineer.

    With problems of peer review, simply don’t have peer reviewers with a conflict of interest. This should be obvious.

    As for factory workers, technicians, and who ever else are needed for the operation, hire them. It creates jobs; which even politicians can’t figure out how to do, apart from pleading to capitalists. Buy the supplies. After all, it is the sale of goods that bring in money. At least then scientists wont have to beg the government or private business, which incidentally is what I mean by “self-sufficient”.

    @Rutee Katreya
    >Randroid

    Don’t even compare me to such lowly creatures. As a socialist, I hate capitalism. To compare me to an ultra-capitalist is a grave insult to my person. I spit on the grave of Ayn.

    But as to who is going to build it: builders of course.

  30. 30
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    Which would you throw a few dollars at: biomedical research into human mental health, or a pure science project to study bone morphology in some species of herps?

    Well, what particular species of herps are we talking about? I imagine if they were herp derps, you could pull in quite a bit of money on Kickstarter. Put together a youtube video with the herp derps and some kittens and you’re golden.

  31. 31
    Ing

    With problems of peer review, simply don’t have peer reviewers with a conflict of interest. This should be obvious.

    Which would be people outside the co-opt

  32. 32
    Keith Peterson

    @Ing

    And? Your point?

  33. 33
    Ing

    That it’s not self sufficient at all

  34. 34
    raven

    Keith is a Randroid or Looneytarian obviously. With nonsensical answers to simple questions.

    Try these.

    1. Hey Keith!!! Why don’t you find a Libertarian paradise somewhere and join it and stop wasting electrons and photons on the internet? There are 220 countries in the world, some you can buy cheap, and they are always looking for an edge.

    The current leader is Somalia. I’m sure they can use a new body. The old ones keep getting shot full of holes.

    2. What is stopping you and John Galt from setting up a Gibbertarian paradise in the USA? There are huge areas that are emptying out as people move away, east of the Cascades and Sierras, the Midwest.

    Could it be that you and John Galt are just babbling idiots? My guess is that you would miss your mommy, get lonely, and get real hungry in a hurry.

  35. 35
    chigau (違う)

    I heard nothing about mining, smelting, or agriculture in there.

    and do the people who deal with the laundry and the garbage have a voice?
    (I know. Hire them!)

  36. 36
    bortedwards

    Here in Australia ‘rumour’ has it that the NSF equivalent (Australian Research Council) will be ‘freezing’ all funding. As tho just making everyone tread water for at least a year won’t seriously stuff up anything up. As an hopefully-about-to-be-minted PhD, I’m looking for some flash courses in conversational and scientific Cantonese…

  37. 37
    rnajmanovich

    I think jebyrnes (#14) touched the crucial point of why it is done:
    “So, yeah, crowdfunding. It’s out there. It’s a great thing to use to help bring your research into contact with the larger world around you. And, frankly, you should be communicating with a broader audience about your work. But is crowdfunding a threat to traditional funding sources? Doubtful.”

    It is a great way to disseminate science and thus increase the visibility of the institution and the researchers involved. I think however that the amounts will remain small as larger philanthropic donations usually go directly to universities. As such, the benefit of crowdfunding will remain restricted to dissemination and visibility because at most one or a few crucial experiments can be done with these amounts. Maybe the results generated are sufficient to increase the chances of obtaining traditional funding. It is likely however that these amounts could have been found directly from institutional bridge funding or via well-funded collaborators. So we come back dissemination and visibility.

    There is one problem though with crowdfunding when the the real benefit is dissemination and visibility: the crowd is paying for it.

    I much prefer the idea of crowdsourcing. Now, in the spirit of disclosure followed by others, I did contribute to the crowdfunding project above and run a crowdsourcing project too. In our case, we develop docking methods to predict ligand-protein binding and apply them to virtual screening. We have setup a BOINC (Berkeley Open Interface for Network Computing) interface to our programs. BOINC is the interface used by SETI@Home. Our own @Home project is called NRG@Home (http://bcb.med.usherbrooke.ca/boinc). This interface does make a huge difference to our research. We count with over 3000 volunteers around the world who receive from our server, one at a time, a ligand and a protein, and dock it using our program utilizing their idle computational time (when the screen saver is running). With this, we can perform over 5000 docking simulations per day.

    We chose to implement this crowdsourcing solution out of necessity. We simple didn’t have enough computational power. I don’t think we have yet to turn the concept of citizen science. We are working on it within the realm of drug design to turn this current passive participatory mode into active participation, much like it is the case with the Protein (and RNA) Folding game developed by David Baker and others. The idea behind these ‘games’ is that humans have an uncanny ability for pattern recognition.

    Some may say that it is all nice and well with computational biology applications but with experimental work it is more difficult. It is true but there is an entire movement of DIY molecular biology out there. Additionally, the same pattern recognition abilities can be crowdsources in more theoretical aspects of research, like involving the scientific literature (unfortunately these would hit a wall with non-open access, but this can be easily circumvented with institutional support).

    Anyway, to conclude, it is not about the money and it doesn’t need to be only for dissemination and visibility. The trend is clear to break the ivory tower, make society at large understand the importance of what we investigate (whatever it is), educate society and treat this educated society with the respect that they deserve, after all their taxes fund most of our research anyway.

    For some more information on our research or our crowdsourcing initiative go to our group’s site: http://bcb.med.usherbrooke.ca or twitter: http://twitter.com/RNajmanovich

  38. 38
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Since I am one of those “highly paid gummint scientists,” I thought I would point out something. I realized that we had hit bottom when they changed the “Human Resources” division to “Talent Acquisition”, and the Training division to “Talent Cultivation.” Those with some experience of show business will recognize the significance of being “talent”. We are not personnel, nor even “human” resources. We are talent. And the grant proposal system is essentially crowdsourcing in any case. They make us come in and do a song and dance number a few times a year, and then toss us our quarterly bone. Science in this country is dead–it’s just that nobody has informed the scientists.

  39. 39
    sallyjames

    Just want you to know there is a great startup here in Seattle @microryza that is crowdsourcing science research funding. They are also supporting our mission to get 6 science questions ANSWERED by candidates for governor.

    http://sciencedebate.org/wa2012/

    We have answers from one candidate but not the other. NW Science Writers ( @nswa ) is collaborating with ScienceOnlineSeattle (@scioSEA) and science debate founder Shawn Otto.

  40. 40
    ilex

    I like the idea in principle. I have a couple of concerns:

    1. I wonder who the “crowd” in this case is. I know a lot of people who are already involved in science contributing to these efforts, which is basically recycling stipends/salaries from existing fellowships, grants, etc. back into research. Is there any info on who the donors are and how much money is actually coming in from non-academic sources?

    2. Quality of the science is not actually correlated to the quality of the “talent.” I saw my home state elect a governor based on how he looks with his shirt off, I really don’t want to fund scientists the same way. Anyone with a big name or a lot of charisma could fund their junk science out the wazoo.

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space: After living L.A. for a while, I’m really, really used to hearing “talent” applied to strippers. They were either called “dancers” or “talent.” I chuckled at your comment.

  41. 41
    jonrosebaugh

    Are researchers going to have to sing and dance on street corners with their hats out to eke out funds to support their obscure and esoteric efforts?

    I know of one researcher who does: Masashi Yoshimura at the California Academy of Sciences. He has a youtube page and I see him sometimes on weekends at Embarcadero Plaza, singing with a microphone and a sign promoting his research project.

  42. 42
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Yeah, when they sent out the email saying Training was now “Talent Cultivation”, I sent out a broadcast email to the entire center suggesting that what they were cultivating was not talent, but rather something that grew best in dark, damp conditions.

  43. 43
    raven

    National Institutes of Health Overview by Institute
    ww.nih.gov/about/director/budgetrequest/NIH_BIB_020911.pdf

    File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat – Quick View
    The FY 2012 Budget requests. $32.0 billion for the. National Institutes of Health. (NIH), an increase of. $745 million, or 2.4 percent, over the FY 2010 level.

    I don’t have a problem with crowd sourcing. I wish them the best especially since it may end up being the best anyone can do.

    But here is the problem that scientists know and nonscientists don’t quite realize.

    Science can cost money. Huge quanities of money!!!

    NIH budget this year is 32 billion. It’s not enough. In terms of buying power it is down about 1/3 in a decade.

    The most successful project I worked on cost $300 million over about 8 years. Try raising $300 million by crowd sourcing. FWIW, this was bargain basement cheap. Lots of other groups have spent lots more and failed.

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