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Science & Technology

August 30, 2010
Volume 88, Number 35
pp. 26-27

Grassroots Grants

Three nonprofits want to fund early-stage research with help from the masses

Carmen Drahl

Thomas Harper
MODEL Adelman (seated), with adviser Michael Grabe, examines a representation of a glutamate transporter.
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Courtesy of Joshua Adelman

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Joshua Adelman is intrigued by the molecular workings of transporter proteins in the nervous system. He’s not sure that his research, which he’s carrying out as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, makes for scintillating cocktail-party chatter. But it’s in his best interest to find ways to get the person on the street as excited about transporters as he is, because he’s appealing to the general public to fund his work.

Adelman wants to know how the transporter for the neurotransmitter glutamate moves between different conformations. He would like to perform computer simulations of the protein’s motions, based on X-ray crystal structures that have recently become available. But in a competitive funding climate, he says it’s hard to find support for the preliminary simulations that later might anchor a major grant application.

When he learned about FundScience, a nonprofit helping young researchers get pilot grants by aggregating small donations from the public, he sensed a potential funding opportunity and “sort of jumped on it,” Adelman says. Today, his project is one of the first three to be displayed on the FundScience website where the public can contribute to his research with the click of a mouse.

The concept behind FundScience is not new. So-called crowd-sourcing and crowd-financing movements have been successful for education and small-business causes. For instance, the loan platform Kiva, which connects entrepreneurs in developing countries with backers who lend them small amounts of money, has facilitated over $100 million in loans. In the medical research arena, the National Institutes of Health has its own charity, Foundation for NIH.

However, funding gaps still exist, a quandary that was discussed at length during last month’s Open Science Summit in Berkeley, Calif. At the summit, FundScience’s founders, genetics Ph.D. David Vitrant and entrepreneur Mark Friedgan, announced the launch of their donation portal. The pair was joined by peers from like-minded organizations SciFlies and Eureka Fund, who called for more alternatives for research funding. All three organizations aim to finance small-scale research that might slip through the cracks of traditional channels, with grants on the order of a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. Each organization has subtle differences in its approach.

Bay Area-based Eureka Fund was the first to take donations. Its platform launched on a trial basis in December 2009. The organization has one option available to potential donors—a project that will monitor off-the-grid energy use in Africa. Like FundScience, Eureka Fund encourages applications from graduate students or recent Ph.D.s. But unlike FundScience, where the focus so far is projects with a biomedical angle, Eureka Fund’s emphasis is on environmental and energy research.

“There is widespread grassroots public interest in science,” Eureka Fund founder Jason Blue-Smith said at the summit. As a research fellow with the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project, which investigates human origins, Blue-Smith found that members of the public were eager to contribute to the project in some way. He developed Eureka Fund to give the public a personal stake in scientific discovery, while helping young researchers pursue their work. “This is a way to further develop that public interest and leverage it in a way that makes sense for both sides,” he adds.

It isn’t just young scientists who have ideas that lie off the beaten funding paths. St. Petersburg, Fla.-based SciFlies is accepting grant proposals from scientists at all levels of experience, says founder David Fries. Trained as a physical chemist, Fries is now a marine engineer at the University of South Florida. He conceived SciFlies during a 2009 sabbatical together with Larry Biddle, who worked on Internet giving during Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run, and Michelle Bauer, who runs a boutique communications firm called Common Language. As of C&EN press time, SciFlies’ website had not yet launched. The launch is planned for August 2010, Fries says.

At all three organizations, the funding process starts with a grant proposal. The grant applications are shorter than those for a traditional grant. For SciFlies, project descriptions must be on the order of 300 words or less, according to a preview of the website that Fries provided to C&EN. At FundScience, in addition to the application itself, scientists seeking monies must send along a letter of support from an adviser, Vitrant says.

The next step is a peer-review process. Eureka Fund conducts its peer review with help from its scientific advisory board, and encourages researchers who have registered with its site to participate as well, Blue-Smith said at the summit.

At FundScience, Friedgan and Vitrant draw on personal networks for reviewers. “We started focusing on the biological area because that’s what I know,” Vitrant says. However, finding appropriate reviewers for proposals is “something we’re struggling with,” Friedgan acknowledges. They eventually would like to harness established reviewer groups such as those at the Public Library of Science journals.

Sciflies, too, is interested in tapping into existing reviewer resources. “We’ve been in discussions with the American Association for the Advancement of Science about providing access to their pool of reviewers, allowing us to work within that network,” Fries says. He and his colleagues have visited multiple universities and professional societies to find promising candidates for reviewers as well as for funding and to encourage them to become part of the Sciflies network. “But for now the reviewers are an extended network of people I know,” he says.

Kiva was successful because it harnessed existing organizations for vetting, says David Roodman, a microfinance expert at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit policy-research organization. Kiva doesn’t directly give funds to small business owners, he explains. Instead, it channels them through other microfinance organizations that try to ensure that borrowers are capable of repayment. It’ll be crucial for science microphilanthropy nonprofits to tap into corresponding vetting networks to succeed, he says.

Once a project is vetted and posted to the Web, all three organizations require researchers to report on their progress online, with jargon-free language understandable by donors without a scientific background. In some cases, videos are in the works. SciFlies has contracted with writers to help researchers describe their science with clarity, Fries notes.

But “thinking about what you want to put in the public domain is a tricky issue, especially when these are targeted as pilot grants,” Adelman says. On the one hand, he says, it’s good to show the public how science works. On the other hand, many areas of science remain competitive. “Especially with a less established, younger group, there’s a tendency not to want to lay out plans for the world to see,” he says.

“This is a way to further develop that public interest and leverage it in a way that makes sense for both sides.”

It’s not a guarantee that Adelman’s or any of the projects will be fully funded. Adelman says he entered into the venture aware of that possibility. “I’d be thrilled if we could raise the full $50,000 we asked for,” he says. “But I don’t really know what to expect.” So far, his project has $5,000 to its name, a starter donation that FundScience provides from its own coffers. None of the projects on FundScience’s or Eureka Fund’s websites has yet been fully bankrolled. (SciFlies’ website is not yet ready for donors.) Average donations have been small—Eureka Fund’s suggested donation is $25.

Adelman planned his budget so that even if he doesn’t raise much beyond the starter donation, he and his adviser would still be able to do something useful. “That $5,000 would buy us a workstation with several graphics processing units,” enough to get started with simulations, he says. If he were to raise more money, part of it would go toward his postdoc salary and part would go toward buying storage space to archive computational data.

Not every researcher can design a budget like Adelman’s. For instance, a researcher who needs one big-ticket item may find crowd-funding much riskier than conventional channels. “With a traditional funding agency you know what they are going to provide. In general they give you a substantial fraction of what you request,” Adelman says.

FundScience intends to replace projects on the website every six months, and will decide on a project-by-project basis whether to give a project partial funding or offer donors an opportunity to redirect their funds to a different project. Eureka Fund offers similar options, allowing donors to choose between redirecting their money to a particular project on the site, to a project of similar scientific scope, or to Eureka Fund’s operating costs.

One of the hardest things about engaging the public in any fundamental scientific research, and then getting donations, is communicating relevance, Adelman says. “There’s not often immediacy in the results of a basic research project,” he says. Even though the glutamate transporter is linked to diseases such as epilepsy, “understanding the mechanism of this transporter today isn’t going to result in a therapeutic tomorrow.”

Kiva captures interest by providing personal stories about entrepreneurs, Roodman notes. “Stories are often powerful because we can relate to them personally,” he says. “Storytelling and mythmaking have been central to how microfinance has succeeded.”

He thinks it’s possible to apply the same techniques to researchers. “With scientists there’s the hero archetype—the person who invents the thing that changes the world,” he says. “And there’s a general fascination with technology.”

Adelman is hopeful that the crowd-funding venture will pan out. “This is the first grant I’ve written totally on my own,” he says. “It’s an interesting experiment. I hope it works.”

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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