What a concept: “Our mission is simple: To enable the public to fund pilot research projects.”
Whose concept? Whose mission? Fund Science.
A bit more on their mission …
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.
First, they need an editor.
Without repeating our mission, we just want to say that we hope that we can make science more understandable and accessible to everyone. We hope that we can foster an environment where people get together to solve the tough challenges our society faces in terms of a brain drain and technological advancement. And we hope we can give some of the decision making skills to the public and away from the NIH and other large corporations.
I’m sure they did not mean to imply the NIH is a large corporation, though with the Great Zerhouni, I can understand the confusion. On the other hand, one wonders if they realize the NIH itself has its very own Foundation for the NIH for just this purpose (direct public funding of donor-specified research).
Anyway, these folks want to fund young investigators doing exciting high-risk work outside the Big Cheese laboratory who are typically passed over in the NIH shell game due to lack of name recognition or institutional clout. They want to keep the community of science from losing promising talent frustrated with the grantsmanship rat race.
And as does come through via the Website, they want to do this in partnership with the public, showing “them” along the way how science works, why and how it should be funded, and what the public should expect back from science. They are also looking for foundation funding to redistribute according to this same model.
Although the Website is officially mum on this, a FS blogger indicates CIPs (curious interested persons) – meaning, I assume, the lay sponsor – take the place of peer review and fund whatever they want to fund. Oh, and not just fund, but apparently help with the project too. Hmmm. Anyone have a really fun BSL-3 project they want Joe the Plumber helping with? Or maybe that’s not quite what is meant by “The CIPs and trained scientists could work together on something that both are interested in.” However, FS somehow needs to take responsibility to ensure their donors aren’t throwing their money away on unsound projects (and the way to do this is, yes, some sort of scientific peer review). My guess is that the Fund Science folks have not seen some of the hair-raisingly bad research plans that I have (perhaps written by scientists not clear on the concept of science). Indeed, logistics and dissemination plans seem to be in the formative stage.
Perhaps the Fund Sciencers would consider a central proposal respository such as that proposed by Noam Harel at Yale (as we discussed earlier). This way, the public could sort through what’s available and, if inspired, submit an earmark for their favorite project … or put up a request for proposals they were willing to help fund. Given that only enough information to explain the work to a lay person is needed, IP issues shouldn’t be as much of a concern (with the concern shifted, of course, to otherwise unfundable proposals for whacko woo that sounds very attractive to Joe). In any case, the FSers want transparency, and putting all the proposals out there for public review is pretty transparent – plus it shows they aren’t simply matching lay sponsors with local FS friends and supporters in need of pilot funding.
Clearly part of the education process would be what a lay person can expect to be accomplished with $50K, and how ethical issues may constrain what exactly the scientist can do. Randomized controlled trials and placebos are a tough pill for many to swallow, but this is what science is. And then there is the personal danger to those who submit proposals involving animal research. Not necessarily from the potential Fund Science donors but from the whackaloons who will track down these PIs for even thinking about using animals for research purposes.
Of course, Fund Science gives bedside to bench a whole new meaning. The NIH needed a Roadmap to find its way to actionable cures faster (to satisfy Congressional sponsors), and the CTSA Consortium (soon to be expanded again, with final apps due Oct 21) is charged with ‘splaining to the public how research works (including why it takes so long), why they should support it, and why they should enroll in clinical trials. I’d suggest CTSAs help nurture the Fund Science ecosystem, but that would probably be the kiss of death.
Now, getting back to the mission to help young investigators with ground-breaking ideas as they establish their labs, the SFers are looking at $50K awards, so essentially seed money to demonstrate proof of concept for … what? R01 applications? Further requests of support from Fund Science? Industry sponsors? One very good and useful component is the need for awardees to come back to their lay sponsors and explain what they did and learned with the money and where they will go next. Good for the public because it completes the circle on understanding how research works and useful for the awardee in planning the application for follow-on funding. Heaven knows I’m looking at a pile of A1s and A2s whose PIs need to complete such an exercise. The suggested monthly progress reports and Q&A sessions would be a bit much though (for both sides).
Given that the Fund Science Website is currently so light on detail, this remains at best an interesting thought exercise for direct public funding of basic science. I add this qualifier because all clinics at Baby It’s Cold Outside (and I’m sure all academic medical centers) already solicit direct patient donations toward research at that clinic – and encourage full study sponsorship in areas of personal interest, including, and this gets a bit creepy … given they’re sitting in the waiting room and all, perhaps even a first-time patient at that clinic … options for bequests. These patients get newsletters telling them what great advances the clinic researchers are making with their donations [and/or their consent to join the research registry and contribute DNA-biospecimens (priceless!) in lieu of a check] and get invited to researcher presentations at luncheons, dinners, golf tournaments, and what not.
Bench and field scientists don’t have grateful patients sitting in their … well, standing by the hall water fountain & handing out thank you gifts, so how else can they get direct public support of their cool, transformative, paradigm-rocking ideas? On the other hand, once found, these grateful lay “science persons” could contribute directly to their favorite individual scientists’ projects through the scientist’s home institution’s development office (hence bypassing Fund Science).
Still, most people don’t think about doing this without a thought trigger, and they certainly don’t immediately think about directly funding incomprehensible molecular genetic studies in little worms with strange names in an effort toward curing a very comprehensible disorder afflicting their child. Could something like Fund Science be the tipping point? I suspect former fellow CMUer Randy Pausch would approve of such imagineering.