Fund Science

Nov 19 2008 Published by under NIH Budgets and Economics

Suppose you wanted to build an electrophysiology rig for less than $100 in eventual product cost? Suppose that something you thought was at least partially a goof really resonated with people, especially people in science education?
Further suppose that you are outside of the traditional science funding path for some reason. Perhaps you are not affiliated with any university. Perhaps you are affiliated but are not in a job category that permits you to submit proposals to the NSF or NIH?
Wouldn't it be great if there was a place for you to get a pilot grant to establish credibility and feasibility of your idea?


The folks at Fund Science are in the absolute infancy of developing a mechanism:

To enable the public to fund pilot research projects. Accomplishing this goal has immense benefits. First we're providing research funds to a whole new generation of researchers that are our future. Secondly we're walking the public through the scientific process, from grant writing to funding, all the way to the results. Finally we are creating an ecosystem for scientists to collaborate with each other as well as the public on shaping future research projects.

More specifically:

* Enabling public philanthropy through tactical funding of small pilot research projects up to $50,000.
* Educating and walking the public through the research process by providing direct interaction between researchers and their donors.
* Applying open source methodology to aid program participants in the research process through simple collaboration tools.

You can read more about the people involved with Fund Science here.
This is a very new effort and I imagine there are many questions for the founders to answer, from the theoretical to the practical. What questions would you ask of them? What pitfalls do you see? How would you like such a funding mechanism to work? Is the target of $50,000 per award an amount that would be useful within your kind of science?
Update: I forgot to point to writedit's post on this from some time ago.

23 responses so far

  • Mike_F says:

    Their website states that they will require "grant winners to give back to their sponsors and the community in the form of monthly progress reports and question and answer sessions"
    MONTHLY progress reports #@!#$@!!!!!!!!!
    Somebody out there hasn't got the faintest understanding of how science works...

  • pinus says:

    month 1:
    the grad student working on the project has only been here for 5 days this month. He spent the rest of the time at a meeting, and then home for thanksgiving. While here, he managed to prepare some solutions, but none of the actual experiments worked.

  • An interesting idea. Dr Hyde and I just last night were discussing a super-interesting question that we think has giant public health relevance, and that as far as we can tell no one is rigorously studying. We came up with some pilot experiments to constrain our hypotheses, and since they're purely behavioral I think they'd cost, say, $5000 for materials and animals.
    Since the topic is way out of our labs' expertise, there's no way that we could write a regular grant for this project, even if we held positions that let us apply for grants.
    Just sayin'.

  • Mark says:

    So, what's wrong with monthly progress reports specifically. No one is asking for monthly reports of success. BTW, Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde, if you have someone interested in actually working on the project, get in touch with us and we can discuss the funding opportunity.

  • Odyssey says:

    Mike wrote:
    So, what's wrong with monthly progress reports specifically.
    The time wasted. Time that would be better spent working on the research itself. Science tends to move more slowly than we like. Having to write an incremental progress report every month, where the increment is likely very, very small, is just a waste. In addition, do you really want to wade through a stack of reports each month where most say "nothing new to report"? Reports either every six months or yearly would be much better.

  • Odyssey says:

    Oops, that should have been Mark, not Mike. Sorry. My bad.

  • Pinus says:

    I guess it really depends on the type of 'science' that is being done. If the experiment is a 3 week drug treatment, followed by a 3 week withdrawal phase...then monthly progress reports would be tough. However, if it is some high throughput technique, then one month isn't unreasonable.

  • Hello All,
    Thanks for the input. Our monthly reports where original thoughts and have actually been changed to 6months-year (though not on the site). We will on the other hand try to get recipients of grants to come back and contribute to the FundScience community. How, has yet to be determined. Since the grants come from the public in an ideal world it would be nice for researchers to actually come back to our site and participate in blogging or forums or any other methods of communication with laypeople and each other.
    We are in the process of setting up a forum to discuss all of these topics and hope you will all participate.
    Thanks,
    David

  • msphd says:

    Fucking cool.
    $50,000 would be plenty. $40,000 for my postdoc salary with no benefits, and $10,000 for supplies for 1-2 years.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Or even cooler. Do the work yourself and you'll cost the public only $10,000.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Of course, the first second thing that I think of is regulatory affairs. Clearly, what you want to do is make this as McArthur genius like as possible, i.e., keep the institutional overhead out as much as possible, no?
    This is supposed to be rapid, streamlined and nontraditional if I have it right. It would be fantastic if you could just send the check right to the awardee, right?
    So how will they deal with accounting, reporting, etc? how about animal subjects treatment (Mazullo's cricket is giving me fits, btw. I assume they aren't really regulated in research but still....I can't get away from my vertebrate subject sensibilities) or human subjects protections?

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    Sounds great, like the microloans people provide to entrepreneurs in 3rd world countries. However, I dont think potential donors could even fathom the painstaking time it takes get answers. I could see people going sour quick as they wait for their $50 donation to a project to create a breakthrough.
    I applaud the concept, but the practice will be difficult to implement, particularly in biomedical research. Social, behavioral, even epidemiologic research could be done this way, but will that float the boat of a donor? I dunno....
    Finally, I agree with DM, that ethical concerns need to be assessed by the granting body on animals and human subjects, even though thats the university's responsibility. I would hate to have PETA supporters infiltrating research by donating to it and demanding internal reports the "horrors".
    Its easy to say "no indirects" for many small grants, they just tell the universities to shutup and take it.
    I am all for it, where do I donate my bloated NIH supplemented salary to support research into beer goggle technology?
    Dr F

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I could see people going sour quick as they wait for their $50 donation to a project to create a breakthrough.
    My thinking at the moment is being heavily influenced by 1) The Donors Choose thing we did, and my subsequent browsing of the sort of educational demos that are now available (that teachers were requesting funds to acquire) and 2) These $100 spike guys.
    Not that this Fund Science needs to focus on education, not at all. But rather that it should be possible to keep these projects to ones that are likely to be easily explained to the general public. Both from a motivational standpoint at the funds-solicitation phase and from the perspective of being able to explain what you are doing with the money.
    just a thought.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM,
    I do not see much difference between this Fund Science program and the programs that many universities have for providing seed money ($25,000 - $50,000) for investigator-initiated projects that could later, with some preliminary data, have a chance for NIH or NSF funding.

  • To DrugMonkey and Dr F.
    This a great discussion and I'd like to chime in again. No individual will actually receive a physical check. Universities have an Office of Research and the grants are signed off and managed by these people. The Office of Research also ensures that before the grant goes to us the student and lab is certified for all federal, state, city, and university guidelines. This takes a lot of the legal burden off of foundations (and also cuts down the amount of administration we are doing)..
    We want Science to get funded that would otherwise not get funded, such that the students or young PI's can then go off and get larger grants on their own. But there is a large Scientist and Layperson education part to this. Educating laypeople on the scientific process is the job of the scientific community at this point (the schools don't always do a great job.) We also know that too few scientists are capable of explaining their projects to any random person on the street.
    Our grants will be for up to 50k and we will allow the PI and student to have a "flexible" grant (there will be restrictions like no indirects to the Universities). We have no idea what projects will get funded at first but hypothesize that the first projects funded will be from more popular topics (hiv research, and green energy, public health policy, etc.. )..
    We are hoping that the Scientific community will help us build a model that works for most of us and that allows the education of the public on the very slow, and poorly funded scientific process...
    One final difference in our model VS the Kiva/Donorchoose models is that most scientific research requires a LOT more then the 1-3k donations from those sites. And this may be deterrent to some individuals. But time will see.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    David, have you done any research into how many research universities will so much as permit their faculty to accept awards with no overhead included? Into how many will allow grad students or postdocs to apply for / accept research awards (as distinguished from fellowships)?

  • neurolover says:

    "I could see people going sour quick as they wait for their $50 donation to a project to create a breakthrough."
    My thoughts also turned to DonorsChoose. I guess the results we get there are the smiling kids and their delightful thank you notes. The results we really want, that these children get an education, are much longer term, and ti would be foolish to imagine that our $50 donation is going to bring that about (i.e. the "breakthrough").
    The funding science has to have a similar model: a short term return. It appears that the folks at the site are thinking along those lines in terms of blogging, participating in conversations, answering questions, and, yes, the dreaded progress reports. Thank you notes, pictures of graduate students working on the project, notes on the first data sets might provide the DonorsChoose sort of warm fuzzies that keeps people investing. True, scientists aren't as cute as kids, but, I do think people would get something out of feeling like a stakeholder, that they invested in an idea.

  • DM
    We have spoken to a few universities office of research (large and small).. Our current understanding is as follows:
    1) Graduate students are already supported by stipends and university, so the universities will not spit on 50k to a student
    2) Some universities will refuse ANY grants that don't provide some indirect funds. (I'm sorry but we will have to pass on providing grants to those institutions).
    3) 50k is to help nurture a student and get some basic research for larger grants, most institutions will respect the lack of indirects..
    Neurolover:
    Those are all good points, the larger grant sizes, and longer times until a results (and all scientists know that results are not always good) will be a deterrent. That is why we are trying to encourage grant recipients to participate in other, "easier" ways that may also have an impact.
    We want donors to feel like they are making a change, and learning something.
    David

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It seems as though you are going to be running yet another small-scale fellowship program. That's good and all but leaves you in a less unique position.
    The most attractive concept to me is the direct funding of research projects.
    I am going to be fascinated to see the final list of those institutions what will accept research funding without overhead and those which will not, btw.
    hmmm, this would be a good dataset for trainees seeking postdocs- to check what institutional rules they face at a given place.

  • writedit says:

    DM - In my experience, Universities will waive indirect costs on a case-by-case basis, especially for graduate student or training type funding, especially with such small awards. Seen it happen - been asked my opinion on specific cases (bwah-ha-ha-ha). The VP for Research or equivalent can make it so.

  • Re writedit's point, pre- and post-doc NRSAs and K awards only come with 8% overhead and most universities will accept that, but usually not non-profit research institutes.

  • writedit says:

    DM - on crickets, as invertebrates, they do not fall under USDA or OLAW oversight (so no IACUC approval needed). However, I just learned today that there is a cricket husbandry SOP here at Baby It's Cold Outside that requires vet techs to check their health and well-being at least twice daily. Hmm. I wonder how many legs the little buggers lose during the inspection process or what the techs look for ... an umbrella twirling at their side and top hat jauntily askew? The person who told me about the cricket SOP blanched when I asked what was required for Madagascan giant hissing cockroaches. Easier to catch & handle than crickets certainly.
    Anyway, the sponsor (e.g., FS) should not (cannot) release funds to an institution until documentation has been provided for all required regulatory approvals (IACUC, IRB, IBC, eSCRO, CORID, etc.), just as occurs with JIT for the NIH.
    However, Dr. Feelgood raises a concern I have about the animal rights whackaloons. Nothing like having the FBI on speed-dial to handle death threats against investigators whose research has been publicized. But, let's end on a more chipper note ...
    When your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme. - Jiminy Cricket
    (something to keep in mind when you get that next set of journal reviewer comments)

  • qaz says:

    DM - Thanks for bringing this up and providing a forum for discussion.
    David - This is a great idea. Many universities have donation programs through which funds can be donated for research or for student/post-doc funding. The trick is that these are not termed "grants" and thus do not need to have overhead. (Endowed chairs are usually funded through these mechanisms. While an endowed chair is often expensive, these same mechanisms can be used to "fund" a year's worth of a student or a project. As long as no official deliverables are required, these are not grants and do not require the same overhead.
    I suspect that a thank you note at the beginning of the project saying what the person is going to do and a thank you note at the end saying what was done would make the donor very happy. If the donor wants, one could even say "funded by a generous donation by John Doe." Actually, I've always wanted to be able to say "Thanks Joe." at the end of one of my acknowledgment sections. Of course, if you provide a mechanism by which a researcher who received a donation could spend a day blogging or answering questions, I suspect most of us would gladly do that.

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