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article imageOp-Ed: Crowdfunding for medical research hits a new high

By Paul Wallis     Sep 20, 2014 in Science
Sydney - A new report from The Lancet indicates that crowdfunding for medical research is getting bigger. This is an interesting development in an industry which is seen as a pet for Big Pharma and other dubious institutions.
The Lancet points to David Hawkes, of the Australian Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health as an example. This campaign, on Pozible.com, raised $12,000 for research into viral vectors. Another Australian, from the University of New South Wales, used Thinkable.com to raise research funds after missing out on a grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC). The ARC’s funding took a massive cut of 24 percent last year, thanks in part to the much-loathed austerity budget.
The Australian experience isn’t unusual. According to Thinkable.com (aka Thinkable.org, so new they're still setting up their site), governments are moving away from pure research, which is stifling innovation and effectively blocking research. More to the point, it’s creating an unavoidable bottleneck for funding which automatically excludes research projects which would previously have been eligible for funding.
According to Forbes, the US situation is even worse. One young academic, Cindy Wu, was told that the system “only funds tenured professors”. That’s a pretty small percentage of the research population, and if so, it’s an indictment in progress of the limitations of conventional funding.
Wu didn’t hang around waiting for confirmation. She founded Experiment.com with some friends, Denny Luan and Skander Mzali. The site has successfully funded many projects, and is getting a lot of attention from “angel” investors, pro investors in new startups.
Notable is the significance of some of the research getting funding, which includes a range of medical and other research projects. Wu points out, aptly enough, that even small amounts of money can make a big difference. That’s actually a pretty good assessment of the research sector, which is by definition very cost-conscious, and works on a highly cost-effective basis.
Public interest - The new wild card
An issue which seems to be going unmentioned is the level of interest from the public. Funding is coming from private investors of all kinds. Crowdfunding is demolishing the myth of public ignorance in this area. When you consider the unbelievably patronizing way in which information is dumbed down to a global public awash in college degrees and easily able to access better information, that’s a kind of poetic justice, too.
Many corporates seem to assume that public knowledge is based on press releases. It isn’t. The casual dismissal by the health sector in particular of endless product faults, recalls, and actual deaths (caused by truly lousy, expedient research and actual destruction of negative information by regulators) indicates the real, inherently corrupt and untrustworthy nature of the problems with current research funding.
This is a complacent, insular area of commerce, totally out of touch with both health realities as much as it is uninterested in its obligations to the public. The new ball game may well crash this obscene gravy train, allowing competitive research on to the market. Hopefully, Experiment.com, Pozible.com, and Thinkable.com and their more enlightened, practical approach will ensure valuable research is done promptly, maintaining scientific progress.
It’s grotesque to think that at a time which produces more science in one day than in most of human history, new research is being held back by some collection of penny-pinching idiots. Even the subjects of some of the new pure research didn’t exist a decade or so ago. Why is a prehistoric funding method a good model for a totally different research environment?
Who knows? We might even see open source research, multiple collaborations on related projects, and some cross-disciplinary dynamics for a change. It has to be better than this conventional system and its secretive, stingy, backward approach which is only achieving disasters.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
More about David Hawkes, the lancet, Australian Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Me, Thinkablecom, Australian Research Council
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