Crowdfunding: Why Science Needs Public Support

By Justine Alford

Benn Berrigan/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Benn Berrigan/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

“If it was legitimate science, then it wouldn’t need to be crowdfunded.”

This is a response we have sometimes unfortunately received when seeking support for campaigns. Aside from being far from the truth, this highlights an apparent lack of understanding of some of the difficulties that scientists face while trying to secure funding for their scientific research. So, we thought we would use this as an excuse to delve into the subject and catch up with the scientists behind some projects which have crowdfunded through Walacea, to show you just how tough the world of research can be and hopefully lay these ill-informed ideas to rest.

The life of an academic is not as glamorous as many may believe. Much of a researcher’s time is consumed by the laborious process of writing grant applications, a thankless task for the majority due to the depressingly low success rates. Last year, for instance, the Medical Research Council, one of the five major science research councils in the UK, funded only 23% of the grant applications it received. The MRC funding panels give proposals a score of between 0-10 and state that while 6s or above are considered fundable, due to competition they are never able to fund 6s, and only rarely award 7s.

“Everyone has struggled. It’s a big issue, how to get funding for your research,” said the Karolinska Institute’s Dr Christoffer Rahm, lead researcher of a pioneering clinical trial seeking support through crowdfunding, which hopes to reduce the risk that people with paedophilic disorder will sexually abuse children. For Rahm, a major stumbling block in terms of funding has been a lack of big publications in prestigious journals.

“If you don’t have many high-impact articles on your CV, then most grant funding committees will decline your application. I’ve been a bit unlucky when it comes to publications; I don’t have any super-big articles so far,” Rahm added.

Image credit: materials-science-journals/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Image credit: materials-science-journals/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Early-career scientists transitioning from a position within a research group to becoming a group leader also face considerable difficulty in securing grants. This is a critical phase for researchers in regards to funding, said Rahm, but there aren’t many grants to apply for.

The issues surrounding funding don’t end there, either. There is actually an entire field of research for which funding is incredibly difficult to secure: psychedelics. Drugs like LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) are grouped in the same category as heroin – Schedule 1 – meaning it’s not only almost impossible to gain approval for human studies into these substances, but funding bodies are extremely reluctant to award grants because of the perceived risks.

“Even though it’s legal to research these drugs, the associated political negativity deters funders,” said Professor David Nutt, former government advisor and professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. “You can get lots of money to study drug addiction, like with heroin and alcohol, but research councils aren’t interested in recreational drugs like psychedelics.

“Studying the effects of drugs and how they alter consciousness, rather than addiction, is a lot harder.”

Image credit: new 1lluminati/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Image credit: new 1lluminati/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Last year, Walacea hosted a crowdfunding campaign for the world’s first imaging study of the brain on LSD, exploring its effects on consciousness. It was a huge success, more than doubling its funding goal of £25,000, and the groundbreaking results have appeared in two high-impact journals – PNAS and Current Biology.

“Funding bodies will often promote themselves as being visionary and willing to take a risk, but they didn’t with this work,” said Imperial College London’s Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, lead researcher of the LSD studies. “We were refused support, our research was rejected. Scientifically, I think they made a wrong decision. I think we’re proving that now with major publications in top journals. Top scientists have spoken, and the work was quality.

“I hope in the future that they’re more willing to help move this field forward, but people should be made aware of the research they’ve neglected.”

But this research is about more than playing I told you so. There is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that certain psychedelics may have therapeutic benefits for numerous mental health conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of drug scheduling, though, clinical research into these substances has been hampered.

“We did the first human research on psilocybin in the UK for 50 years,” said Carhart-Harris. “The first fMRI work with psychedelics, the first proper MDMA study using fMRI… We were doing pioneering research with modest resources and consistently delivering. Now that we have a solid platform and it’s harder to refute what we’ve achieved, things should be easier in the future.”

Image credit: this shows the staggering difference in brain activity between those receiving a placebo (left) and LSD (right). PNAS/Carhart-Harris et al., 2016.

Alongside helping scientific projects secure the funding they need to come to life, crowdfunding brings people together who are passionate about a cause and establishes a community of people who together can make change happen when, individually, they wouldn’t have been able to. And apart from the obvious benefits to the scientists themselves, the media coverage that campaigns can pick up shows funding bodies that the projects are of public interest, and thus increases the chances that future grant applications will be successful. For clinical research, there is also the added bonus of keeping pharmaceutical companies out of the picture.

“The results are more reliable, I think, if you don’t have to collaborate with the pharmaceutical industry,” said Rahm. “Because the researcher is free to decide the project, choose the outcome measures they want to look at, and interpret the results without conflict of interest; and that’s very serious. Crowdfunding is one of the solutions to that problem.”

Of course, crowdfunding is not attempting to replace or compete with research councils; the grants these bodies give out each year could never be matched by this platform. But it’s clear there is a need for it, and the overwhelming success of some previous campaigns shows that there is indeed a public appetite, too. Crowdfunding science is still very much in its infancy, but the ingredients are there, and needless to say we’re looking forward to watching this exciting journey unfold.

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