The Crowdfunding That Could Cure Cancer

Since the genesis of platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, crowdfunding has become the new norm for people seeking to materialize their hopes, dreams, and of course, potato salad.

But all jokes and mayo-drenched salads aside, crowdfunding has become much more than just a cost-efficient method of scraping together funds for your band’s first album–it has transformed into a major vehicle for serious scientific research–all while federally funded grants continue to plummet.

Just how big is scientific crowdfunding?

Though an aggregated figure for money crowdfunded for science is currently unavailable, the popularity is clear. From Petridish, to Rockethub, to Experiment, science crowdfunding platforms have been springing up equally as fast as the projects they’re designed to fund.

Experiment is the poster child for success in the boom of science funding.

According to Forbes, even in its beta stage Experiment raised over $600,000 from over 5,000 individuals, and has since continued to excel in popularity.

In a recent project dedicated to mapping the Azolla fern’s genome, researchers at Duke University raised over $22,000.

Though an increased interest in funding scientific research is encouraging to say the least, the root of such a trend is anything but.

According to the National Institute of General Medical Science, in 2013, only 45 of 304 grant applications were accepted–that’s only 15 percent.

The state of conventionally funded science

In the world of scientific funding there exists two simultaneous, though diametric, trends. One being an upsurge in privately funded research (primarily through crowdfunding), and the other downward trend of conventionally–specifically federally–funded science.

The Federation for American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) declared 2013 a “terrible year to have a great idea,” for biomedical researchers.

When looking at the trends, it’s a bit difficult not to concur–FASEB highlights the following statistics for 2013:

  • Between 2003 to 2013 the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) budget dropped by 22 percent

  • The number of RO1 grants (primary grants for investigative science research) awarded, fell by 34 percent in the past decade

Needless to say, FASEB finds these trends particularly concerning for young researchers, stating “The funding cuts and government shutdown…ended support for many young researchers and sent a discouraging message to a generation of promising students and early career scientists.”

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”uXqZShtJMGZp1JuKOCbvcorkpua3sUQe”]The concern

On the surface, exploring alternatives to government reliant grants seems only natural for science research in an age where the Internet is king. But can crowdfunded science really fill the shoes of the NIH?

Crowdfunding offers a smorgasbord of success stories. For example, Ethan Perlstein raised $25,000 to study the mental effects of methamphetamine and is so confident in the merit of crowdfunding, he is now asking for $1.5 million to start his own lab.

On the opposite end of Perlstein, however, government funded projects have been decimated by the budget sequestration in 2013, which according to The Washington Post cut 5.5 percent of the NIH’s budget.

Crowdfunding has proven effective for smaller projects, $5,000 here, maybe $10,000 there, but for it to rival the NIH in funding, it has quite a ways to go. As it stands–even despite sequestration–the NIH devotes over $30 billion to scientific research.

It seems that, at this point, initiatives like Experiment have a worthy challenge in filling the NIHs gap, but co-founder Cindy Wu feels ready to meet it.

In a recent interview with Forbes Wu states, “It is difficult to think that will be bringing in more money than the $30 billion NIH budget. My response is just watch us.”

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?


James Pero