Direct Public Funding of Pilot Research

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.

(BTW, David Vitrant says they also want bloggers.)

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.


  1. BB said

    Re Dr. Pausch: or maybe not …. I’m not sure I like the social networking and transparency aspects if by those terms FS means no or little confidentiality. FS is not the first or only agency like this; there are seed money websites for research springing up hither and yon but they cost the researcher something in terms of privacy. One site I visited (forgot which one) wanted researchers to post their proposals to the website for public critiques and matching to potential donors.
    BTW, to donate in Pausch’s memory, go to They fund research in pancreatic cancer.

  2. Hey,
    I just got a few glimpses of your post. I’m the E.D. of FS and first of all. I would like to thank you for taking the time to blog about us. As you know we are in the very early stages of planning this venture and there are many aspects of this venture that need to be ironed out. As you stated privacy and protection is one of those aspects. Trust me, I know the feeling when somebody steals 2 years of your PhD, and patents your work making your time meaningless. The NIH is only one example but also most likely the best example of the solution and the problem wrapped in one. The NIH itself is aware that they are not reaching and promoting young scientists ( They have canceled most of their young PI grants for that reason and are actively trying to find a solution to this growing problem. So are we. We ask for your input, and your thoughts to help us achieve these goals. Many young researchers are leaving the field because of the ultracompetitive nature of grant writing and publishing much of it affected by whatever the political climate is that term. Let’s not forget that while the NIH has a pool of money to use for scientific research. It is still a political agency and gets it’s budget approved by congress.

    Another issue that we are trying to counter is the lack of public awareness about scientific issues and how the cut-throat research world functions. We could go on about this and some of this has been ironed out and is just not available on our site yet.

    Anyway your input is very important to us and please send me an email if you are interested in finding out more about us or just have questions concerns, and suggestions.

    BTW: I have spoken with Noam about our goals and we hope to work together to solve some of these issues.

  3. Noam Harel said

    Thank you writedit for all of your insights and for mentioning my page as well. Yes, David and I spoke several months ago, shortly before I my OpenScience blogging went into pseudo-dormancy (soon to reawaken I hope).

    FundScience is another great addition to the fledgling field of Open Science. I fully agree that the single biggest potential issue with FS will be the tendency of the ‘public’ to throw $ only at the latest laypress headlines or worse, quackery proposals.

    The Open Science movement, though growing steadily, is still quite small and non-influential. Among its proponents, the number of OS webpages per capita must be staggering! At some point, there will be a (collaborative) coalescence into a more unified and effective format. It’s inevitable…

    Sincerely, Noam

    Feel free to post (as comments) pointers to your favorite Open Science sites, Noam. In my spare life, I’m supposed to be examining bioethical issues of community involvement in clinical research and am intrigued at the thought of adding public involvement in basic science to the mix. – writedit

  4. writedit said

    Nice to see our friends at The Scientist pick up on FundScience in particular and the concept of alternative research funding models more generally. Alla Katsnelson apparently interviewed David Vitrant for more details on their plans (at FundScience) and also covers recent Gates Foundation initiatives, such as the Grand Challenges Explorations (these were fun applications to review – and Nature editorializes as well). And of course, there is our common encouragement for you all to pipe up over at FundScience (which, BTW, I see has undergone a remarkable transformation since my initial visit, so any early visitors, please do go back for more):

    Meanwhile, Vitrant plans to reach out to scientific organizations such as Epernicus to explore collaborating. The organization also wants input from the scientific community on the FundScience model. “We really need researchers right now,” said Vitrant. “We really need researchers to give us their opinions on what is useful and what isn’t — the more criticism, the better.” So go ahead and pop over to FundScience, and tell Vitrant what you think.

  5. writedit said

    DrugMonkey started a nice conversation about FundScience over in his pad at Scienceblogs.

  6. Hi,
    I use researchgate and I think it is fantastic.
    Here some texts from their blog:

    “To make them even more useful, we upgraded our database to include the content of several major scientific databases, namely PubMed, Citeseer, RePEc, ArXiv, IEEE, NASA. Currently, more than 30.000.000 scientific articles from a broad range of scientific fields are included. Searching for keywords is one thing – relating research output based on content is another. We developed semantic tools that are able to do that.”

    researchgate offers a powerful search, a new semantic search with the possibility to paste whole abstracts, which will be analysed semantically and closely related papers will be shown.

    The group functions are pretty nice. Filesharing tool, voting tool, etc.

    here is their video in youtube:

  7. […] under Research News The Chronicle of Higher Education has a nice feature on Fund Science, whose launch and initial solicitation for grant applications (and reminder) was covered here […]

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