NIH funding

Kickstarting Your Career: Crowdfunding for Scientific Research

Christopher Columbus spent 7 years convincing private investors and heads of state to fund his idea of finding a faster trade route to the East Indies.  As research scientists, we’re not much different than Columbus.  Instead of requesting court with Kings and Queens, we propose ideas to government agencies that allocate funding to academic researchers.  But, as governments around the world are looking for ways to reduce spending, grant funding is becoming more and more difficult to obtain.  This leaves young investigators floating in a never ending sea of postdoctoral positions.   Even well funded researchers are looking for alternative sources of financial support in order to fill the downtime between the 12-18 month R01 grant cycles. 

Popularized by such sites as Kickstarter, crowdfunding has become a main source of financial support for entrepreneurs with ideas ranging from clothing lines to social media.  Unfortunately, Kickstarter prohibits projects for health and medicine, making the site useless for academic researchers.  To fill this gap, Petridish, iAMscientist and MedStartr have come online in the past 6 months.  These sites are devoted to helping academic or not for profit tenured, postdoctoral and graduate scientists obtain funding for their research ideas.  Simply propose a research idea, upload video and photos describing your proposal, set a minimum funding requirement and use your social media network to alert your colleagues. 

It’s too early to determine how beneficial crowdfunding is for scientific research, nevertheless, using these sites has several pros and cons that research scientists (especially young investigators) need to consider.

Pros

High Benefit to Time Ratio

Crowdfunding sites state a good proposal can be created in 1-2 hours and successfully funded projects receive their financial support in 90 days.  Compare this with the numerous sleepless nights preparing an R01 grant that will take approximately 18 months before funding is received.  Even if your online proposal doesn’t meet its minimum funding requirements, the amount of time spent is miniscule compared to submitting grants to the NIH or NSF.

Building Your Network

Building a network of colleagues and peers is essential to career development.  At the very least, crowdfunding can provide an additional forum to discuss your research ideas.  This allows like-minded individuals to connect and collaborate on projects, which may lead to employment opportunities down the road.

Corporate Sponsorship

Many research scientists are turning into entrepreneurs to develop their ideas beyond the lab bench.   Crowdfunding provides unique opportunites for corporations to back potential ideas.  This can lead to corporate partnership that provide resources for product scale-up and distribution.  In other words, helping you take your product from development to market in considerably less time at reduced costs.

Cons:

Minimal Funding

To date, most of the successfully funded projects on MedStartr, Petridish and iAMscientist have received fewer than $10,000 USD.  A small drop in the bucket compared to a R01 grant.  Don’t expect crowdfunding to provide you with enough money to land a tenure-track positon.  You’re still going to need to rely on government support to run your own lab.  But, crowdfunding might be just what you need to take your research in a new direction.

Fraud

You take a big risk proposing ideas on social media sites.  Since the majority of projects don’t reach their funding goals, it’s easy for well funded researchers or corporations to run with your idea and claim it as their own.  If applicable, you may want to consider obtaining copyright or trademark licenses prior to posting to crowdfunding sites.

Since crowdfunding in academic research is an extremely new concept, some potential conflicts also exist that need to be considered.

Overhead Fees

Do laboratory overhead fees apply to crowdfunded sources?  I don’t know the answer this, but I have a feeling if crowdfunding becomes commonplace in research science, academic institutions are going to want their cut — potentially 50%.  While graduate students and postdoctoral researchers don’t have to worry about overhead fees, this could quickly change if scientific crowdfunding increased in popularity.

Property Rights

As a young investigator, all the equipment you use or data that you collect is “owned” by the principal investigator.   What happens when a young investigator uses crowdfunded sources to buy laboratory equipment to support their research needs.  Who owns that piece of equipment?   What happens when you leave that laboratory to continue research elsewhere?  Does that equipment come with you?  After all, it was YOUR proposal that was funded.  But I’m willing to wager some PI’s and maybe even the academic institution would lay claim to that piece of equipment.  This is something that you should discuss before posting your crowdfunding proposal.      

Scientists are generally slow to adopt new ideas, but in this tough fiscal climate, we need to consider all avenues of public or private support.  For young researchers, crowdfunding provides a unique opportunity to support your own research ideas while learning how to manage a budget.  Although government funding will be needed, at least in the foreseeable future, to land coveted tenure-track position, successfully crowdfunded proposals can give you a leg-up on your competition.

Has anyone tried crowdfunding to support their research endeavours?  Let the other readers know your thoughts on the process.

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While You Were at the Bench: Week 38

In case you were glued to your lab bench, here is a roundup of this week in science.

United States science budgets will be cut by 8.2% starting January 2nd, 2013 unless Congress gets its act together and approves a budget to drastically reduce spending.  This means NIH and NSF budgets could be trimmed by 2.5 billion and 551 million respectively.  Ouch!

Noncontact atomic force microscopy developed by IBM scientists has allowed detection of individual chemical bonds within a single molecule.  This has important implications for graphene structures and devices.  Where can I preorder tickets for that space elevator?  For those without access, view a summary of the article here.

Just in time for flu season, researchers have unraveled the crystal structure of the human protein responsible for neutralizing the influenza A virus.  This could lead to the development of a universal flu vaccine.

After controlling for caloric intake and hours spent watching television (among a plethora of other factors), researchers found that children and adolescents with the highest levels of urinary bisphenol A (BPA) were 2.6 times more likely to be obese compared with those who had the lowest urinary concentrations.  And people think I’m over protective for limiting my daughter’s exposure to BPA.  A synopsis of the article can be found here.

In the coming months, an estimated 200 papers authored by anaesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii, formerly of Toho University in Tokyo are expected to be retracted due to data fabrication.  It’s unfortunate that such an important aspect of medical research has been rocked by hundreds of retractions these past 3 years.

After outfitting bumblebees with miniature radar antenna and tracking their movements, researchers determined how bumblebees use trial-and-error to quickly determine the shortest distance between objects.  Algorithms describing these learning patterns could be used in robotics for exploring unfamiliar terrain.   Now if we can just get sharks with some frickin laser beams.

Try to stay out of the lab and enjoy your weekend.

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“Required” International Collaboration?

I recently read an article in Sky Magazine about the Executive MBA that highlighted how more and more EMBA programs are requiring international experiences during their programs. Some required only a week abroad for a 12 month program, while others incorporated various international stays for 5 out of 17 months. Other programs that have mainly foreign students, their time in the US constituted their international experience. Reading about these EMBA programs got me thinking…is there a place for similar training during scientific grad school and would it be beneficial? Could we somehow incorporate a semester or even a year of research abroad?

I think that this would have the greatest chance of success during the third or fourth year when you have a sound understanding of your thesis and what experiments are needed to support your hypothesis. By your fourth year you should be fairly independent, but could also benefit greatly from learning a new technique to address your central hypothesis and have input from someone with a different background (both scientific and nationality). As a senior grad student you would have the communication and experimental design skills necessary to plan out experiments in advance so you could hit the ground running in your new laboratory. Having the opportunity to do research abroad during grad school would also help you network and prepare for the next stage of your career while supporting international scientific collaboration.

In a way, some people already do this by going to grad school in another country. Still others have taken opportunities to obtain grant funding that pays for you to visit another lab to learn a new technique, such as the Michael Smith Foreign Supplement Award from NSERC offered to Canadian graduate students who have CIHR, SSHRC, or NSERC funding. There are also programs, such as the NIH OxCam program where you can obtain your degree through NIH that will send you to another lab to learn a new technique, or obtaining a grant from the International Research Fellowship Program (currently not offered) that funds postdoctoral studies abroad. I personally know several people who have obtained these funds and no one was disappointed with their experience, so why not incorporate it into the PhD program?

Do you think that training in a foreign country should be required for the PhD? Please share your experiences?

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Early Independence Award

Science Magazine ran an article today that I thought would be great to share with the readers of RateMyPI.com.

In 2011, the NIH started a program called the Director’s Early Independence Award.  This award was designed to fast track scientist directly out of graduate school to independent research positions, essentially skipping post doctoral research.  Recipients of this grant are awarded $250,000 per year for a total of five years to essentially manage their own laboratories at a host institution.  Host institutions are required to provide laboratory space and equipment, but the NIH advises against appointment to tenure-track positions.  This allows the awardees to focus on research without hearing the tick-tick-tick of the tenure timeline. 

This program started in response to the increasing age where researchers achieve a tenure-track position.  Currently, the median age to achieve research independence is 37.  Achieving scientific independence at such a late stage in life dissuades many young scientists from pursuing careers in academia and greatly reduces the lifetime earning potential of extremely intelligent individuals.

The biggest hurdle facing this program is helping transition awardees away from institutions where they earned their PhD’s.  It becomes difficult to gain a sense of independence when your graduate school advisors are just a few doors away.  After five years of going to them for advice, it becomes difficult to break that pattern and start standing on your own two feet. 

This is where RateMyPI.com can help.   By providing a portal to locate the best institutions and research groups to help progress your careers, we help remove the uncertainty of moving across country, or even out of country, for a career opportunity.

The 2013 Early Independence Award deadline is approaching.  Please visit the NIH website to learn more about this amazing opportunity for young scientists. 

Kevin Hascup

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