This guest post was written by UBC neuroscientist, Kimberly Girling.
Have you ever wondered about what microbes might be living inside of your gut? Well wonder no more! The American Gut Project can help! The project out of the University of California at San Diego is collecting a huge body of human gut microbe samples. Their aim is to look at how the trillions of microbes living in our guts can be affected by diet, lifestyle, and other factors and how those same microbes might be affecting our behaviors and health, or be implicated in a wide range of diseases. This month the project raised over $1M in research money to collect and analyze their data, no easy feat in the research world. This funding did not, however, come from scientific grants, nor were their subjects selected through a rigorous protocol. Instead, the American Gut Project used crowdfunding and crowdsourcing to fund and collect the data for their research, making it the largest scientific study to use crowdfunding to date.
What is crowdfunding of science and how does it work?
Using the crowdfunding website FundRazr, American Gut Project harnessed the power of the people and advertised their research project online. FundRazr is used to fund all kinds of personal projects and causes, allow everyday people to donate to a project in exchange for a reward or incentive. In the case of the American Gut Project, with a donation of about 100 bucks, and a mailed-in stool sample (yup! Poop through the mail!) donors would get a full analysis of their gut microbiome – telling them what’s living in their gut, how that might be impacted by their life and how it might affect their health.
For increasing donation amounts, you could add family members, find out about other microbe ecosystems in other parts of your body or even get information on your whole genome. While crowdfunding at its roots was primarily used to fund personal passion projects, music campaigns and small films, crowdfunded and crowdsourced science projects are starting to pop up everywhere, looking at a huge number of scientific questions. The American Gut project is a great example of how these projects can be successful, and many other research projects have utilized crowdfunding and crowdsourcing to make other incredible research advances. Is crowdfunding the future of science research money?
What are the benefits of crowdfunding/crowdsourcing science?
In Canada and the US, the vast majority of research money comes from the government in the form of grant money from a wide variety of health, social, environmental and defense agencies, among others. These grants are not easy to obtain, and are prioritized by an expert reviewing committee’s confidence in positive results as well as direct and applicable benefits of the study. Applications for government funding often require preliminary experimental results in order to move forward. Understandably, it is far more difficult to obtain funding for controversial scientific concepts, new, high-risk research where the results are potentially unknown, or research without immediately or directly applicable outcomes.
Crowdfunding less-likely-to-be-funded projects can be an innovative way to get a project off the ground that may not be funded by traditional methods; driving new ideas and helping new or controversial scientific concepts gain traction. Similarly, crowdsourcing of research, like the American Gut Project, has the potential to create better science. Usually, scientific subject pools are selected by rigorous criteria, choosing participants with specific demographics, health status, background or other criteria. This can be tedious, expensive, and may potentially narrow the breadth and applicability of results.
The American Gut Project, and other studies in genetics, genomics and bioinformatics, capitalize on the interest of the public in their own personal genetic/microbial information, getting volunteers to send in stool, saliva or blood samples. This creates a widely diverse sample set that would never be possible using traditional sampling techniques.
Crowdfunding/crowdsourcing can also have benefit by getting “citizen scientists” involved in the research process. Creating discussion and transparency between scientists and the public can create positive public interest, raise knowledge and increase awareness of scientific topics that might otherwise be missed. It is clear that there are many potentially positive outcomes of this novel funding technique, filling niches that traditional funding schemes might miss.
Why don’t we fund all research this way?
We can all agree that government funding can be tough to land, and certainly has its share of cumbersome protocols and processes. However, one of the reasons that the process is challenging is because of strict guidelines to assess projects for viability, scientific integrity, and safety. With government funding programs, researchers have to be accountable for the dollars they are granted – a fact that is not true with crowdfunded research.
Without any funding guidelines, it can be more difficult to assure that the research being conducted is safe, ethical and viable, something that is of particular importance with biological or medical research, where human health is at stake. Similarly, in order to gain the interest of the general public, crowdfunding campaigns must be interesting, sexy, or relatable, putting them at risk of exaggeration or embellishment in order to attract and retain donors. Without any controls, or ways of verifying truth in online campaigns, crowdfunding can potentially lead to the funding of bad research, which can be wasteful or even unsafe. Take, for example, The Immunity Project, a crowdfunding project to develop an HIV vaccine. With great marketing, a beautiful website and a noble goal, the project raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in public donation, though the science behind it was, in fact, highly questionable.
This, of course, does not mean that crowdfunded research is poor by proxy. In the case of American Gut, and many other successful research campaigns run by highly qualified and authorized scientists, researchers have utilized this new source of fundraising to a huge advantage, using publically donated money to create great science. Like all other crowdfunding campaigns, such as those for personal causes or start-up businesses, it’s important for donors to carefully vet the causes they choose to contribute to, and do their due diligence in looking into who they’re choosing contribute funds to.
So what now?
Will crowdfunding replace traditional scientific research funding? Probably not. There are still notable barriers and challenges to using this method for scientific research. However, used well, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing can help drive scientific progress forward in a wide number of ways, improving research samples, pushing forward new and innovative ideas and helping create excitement and dialogue about research and science to a wide number of people.
Kimberly Girling holds a B.Sc. from the University of British Columba and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Neuroscience at UBC. Her research focuses on developing novel preventative therapies for Huntington’s Disease. Kimberly works closely with the life sciences industry in BC, working previously as the President, and Director of Corporate Relations with the Student Biotechnology Network and has a strong interest in global health and accessible medicine. Kimberly works closely with several health and drug policy organizations such as the Neglected Global Diseases Initiative, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines and The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. She recently initiated an independent Nation-wide study on improving health of illicit substance users.