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Science Funding Attracts a Crowd

Science Funding Attracts a Crowd

By Tina Thorburn

Crowdfunded scientific research has hit Australia as researchers communicate and engage with the public in exchange for their funds and their faith.

It’s the day after Halloween, and Dr Melanie Thomson is preparing something that would make any trick-or-treater scream. Mixing horse blood and agar, Thomson carefully pours the “blood jelly” into containers to set.

At the same time, in Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, little maggots hatch from their eggs. These squirming larvae are not destined to become buzzing flies that irritate picnickers – these maggots are special. They’re medical maggots, and Thomson is preparing a feast for them.

Thomson is a microbiologist at Deakin University and, like her colleague Dr Euan Ritchie, was one of the first researchers in Australia to successfully run a campaign to crowdfund their research.

Traditionally researchers like Thomson and Ritchie seek the majority of their funding from government bodies like the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council (ARC). However, only 16% of the grants submitted to these organisations are successful. Alternative sources of funding come from philanthropic organisations or directly from industry and business.

To address the uncertainty of funding, new funding mechanisms are driving scientists to step out into the public sphere and engage with the masses. Crowdfunded scientific research is emerging at a time when government focus and funding is elsewhere.

“We have a Minister for Anzac Day, and a Minister for Sport, but no Minister for Science,” Ritchie says. “This is concerning, considering how important science is to every bit of our lives.”

The prospect of science funding cuts are even more frightening for early career researchers like Thomson and Ritchie, who are caught in a Catch-22. “You need money to get preliminary data, but you need preliminary data to get money,” Thomson says. “It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. But the crowdsourcing gives you a leg up.”

Along with her colleague, Dr Michelle Harvey, Thomson appealed to the public for support. Their “Mighty Maggot” campaign on Pozible, the third-largest crowdfunding platform in the world, raised $9970.

“The money from this Pozible campaign will allow us to run a clinical trial using maggots to treat a flesh-eating bacteria that is found on the Bellarine Peninsula. This preliminary data will hopefully show that maggots are better than plastic surgeons,” Thomson says. “When I was out in the public promoting the project, people would come up to me and show me the scars on the backs of their legs, and then give me a cheque.”

Ritchie isn’t interested in maggots; he’s interested in mammals. He’s an ecologist who also ran a Pozible campaign to fund the collection of preliminary data. With the $21,913 raised, Ritchie travelled to Papua New Guinea to set camera traps in the relatively unexplored Torricelli mountain range. With this data Ritchie hopes to discover new species, and at the same time gather information on two endangered tree kangaroos that have populations that “make pandas look like they’re doing well”.

PhD student Caroly Dancevic isn’t interested in maggots or mammals; she’s using zebra fish to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic degenerative muscular disorder that affects boys. She’s not your stereotypical scientist. Short and 24 years old with straight brown hair, the only part of the stereotype she matches is the fact that she wears glasses.

“People have a perception of scientists and researchers as crusty old men doing research in lab coats,” says Dancevic. “In the end we’re just like everybody else.”

And unlike the stereotype, Dancevic and her supervisor at Deakin University, Dr Daniel McCulloch, engaged the local community and raised $9592 for their Pozible campaign. Dancevic and McCulloch targeted the local papers and the nearby community. Dancevic points out: “The disease we’re researching involves the community surrounding Deakin, not just overseas or in a distant city”.

Unlike traditional funding schemes, crowdfunding forces researchers to engage with the people who will be directly impacted by their research. “Crowdfunding gives direct contact between your stakeholders and your work,” Thomson says. “I like that, but some scientists might find that quite confronting.”

David Hawkes, a virologist at the Florey Institute, doesn’t find it challenging and understands the importance of engaging the public. “You’ve gotta sell your science to bogans. You can’t just sell it to people that live in Brunswick,” says Hawkes. “I’m from Mooroolbark, and I never came across scientists, so a lot of people from out that way are quite skeptical.”

Hawkes also successfully ran a Pozible campaign and raised $12,925 to create four viral vectors, a biological tool that acts like a puppeteer to cells. Hawkes worked tirelessly to connect with a wider community. From tweeting to featuring on regular podcasts, Hawkes reached an extensive audience. But to really sell his science, Hawkes’ Pozible campaign offered rewards.

These ideas were spurred on by the success of Thomson and Harvey’s “maggot art”, which was sent to anyone who pledged $50 or more. Created by live maggots dipped in non-toxic paint and left to wiggle their way across paper or canvas, maggot art is actually quite beautiful. “Some people got really into their maggot art and got it framed and mounted,” says Thomson laughing. “Its now part of their dinner table conversation when they have people round for a dinner party.”

Thomson says for Pozible rewards to work they need to have “hipster appeal” like Kris Vacy’s campaign. Vacy is a Masters student studying autism, working alongside Florey neuroscience researcher Wah Chin Boon. Known as the “Boonians”, their rewards include intricately designed lab coolers drawn by one of Boon’s research assistants.

As an aspiring researcher, Vacy finds crowdfunding of scientific research to be a double-edged sword. “It’s not about who has the best research, but who has the most friends,” Vacy says.

For a young woman who used to suffer from social anxiety, this might seem like a daunting prospect. But Vacy has embraced the opportunity, plugging the Boonian campaign on Facebook, Twitter and via her YouTube channel, which has had over half a million views. In the end, the “Boonians” raised $15,490. Vacy and her colleagues were able to mobilise their friends and the community to support their research..

“At the end of the day it comes down to popularity and marketing,” Thomson says. And what better way to market your research than through social media, community engagement and the Pozible platform. Combined, these marketing tools are allowing these researchers to reach audiences previously unmoved by their work.

Shane Hewitt is a 63-year-old bookkeeper with a fondness of wine, good food and the arts. An unlikely contributor to science research, Hewitt donated $20 to Ritchie’s tree kangaroo campaign. “I like the idea of the public, Joe Average, sitting at home in front of the computer being able to connect and be involved,” Hewitt says. “There’s a lot of personal satisfaction from being able to say, ‘That’s a great project; I’ll help with my $20 or my $50.’”

Other unlikely donors have pledged to these Pozible research campaigns. For example, Thomson received donations from retired sheep farmers who were “excited to see maggots doing something useful for a change instead of killing their sheep. It’s a group of people who I didn’t think would give to my campaign, but they did and now I see why.”

But there will always be those that cannot be moved, or believe that their taxes should pay the bill for research. “I spoke to one woman whose son had had the ulcer, and she couldn’t understand why she should give me money,” Thomson recalls. “She said: ‘Don’t I pay taxes to support medical research?’ It was confronting coming from someone whose family member suffered from the disease. I remember remonstrating with her quite a lot, but she was not to be moved. It was a lowlight, and I went home and cried.”

Although confronting, some researchers see this as a necessary hurdle to overcome, and think communication is the key ingredient to successful science, and funding. “There is a huge need for better communicators, because the fact of the matter is, if you can’t get your message out to people, your message is useless,” Ritchie says. “You can do the best research in the world, but if people can’t understand it, and more importantly, can’t use it, just go home.”

For researchers like Thomson and Ritchie, it seems the right recipe to fund their research includes a dash of communication, a sprinkling of engagement, a good dose of interesting science, and a willingness to try crowdfunding.

So as Thomson continues to make her blood jelly treat for her medical maggots, we face a future where scientists may come trick-or-treating to fund their research.

Tina Thorburn is a Masters of Journalism student at Monash University, and tutors in Communicating Science and Technology at the University of Melbourne, where she completed her Bachelor of Biomedicine in 2010.