Why Scientists Need to Embrace Crowdfunding

From the junior physician attempting to start a pilot study to the seasoned researcher in the final years of an academic grant, the harsh reality of medical research funding constantly looms. Young researchers have faced the worst funding in half a century. The competition for public research grants has intensified to the point where less than 15% of proposals obtain funding. The $1.55 billion budget cut to the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2013 alone resulted in an estimated 640 fewer research studies receiving funding. Researchers are now encouraged to prepare for grant applications years in advance and to expect several rounds of rejection before a project may receive funding. When a project does finally succeed in obtaining a grant, the amount may be less than the proposed budget, resulting in study modifications that may not be able to answer the original question.

Faced with such daunting odds, a small but growing number of researchers are turning to crowdfunding as a way to fund projects. Researcher from a wide spectrum of disciplines are using crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter or Indigogo to supplement existing research project budgets or even as the sole source of funding for a project. The advent of science specific crowdfunding websites such as Experiment and Consano have allowed researchers to tap into the crowdfunding market. From tagging hammerhead sharks in Hawai'i to large randomized controlled trials in cancer, research program from all disciplines are taking advantage of such platforms to expose their projects to the public in the hopes of getting money.

My colleagues (Dr. James S. Khan and Dr. P.J. Devereaux) and I conducted a study to evaluate the success of crowdfunding campaigns to fund scientific studies. Our results were recently published in the Lancet. Hunting through the major crowdfunding platforms, my team and I sifted through thousands of campaigns to identify those attempting to raise money for scientific research. Our results suggest that crowdfunding maybe a viable source of funding for research studies.

Our analysis focused on crowdfunding for randomized controlled trials in humans - which included everything from cannabis for the treatment of attention deficit disorder to the use of mistletoe extract in the treatment of cancer to novel treatment strategies in multiple sclerosis. Randomized controlled trials are typically considered the gold standard in evaluating an intervention compared to a placebo or standard of care. We restricted our analysis to crowdfunding campaigns affiliated with research institutes or universities. In totality, 62% of all campaigns met funding targets; significantly better than the 15% success rate when applying for a public research grant. Furthermore, even the unsuccessful campaigns managed to raise some amount of funds. Our results showed that of the successful campaigns, 63% were for small pilot studies or phase 1 studies - where researchers test a treatment in a small group individuals for the first time, usually as a proof of concept and to assess safety. The remainder of crowdfunding campaigns were for larger phase 3 studies, which are typically conducted on a large group of individuals to prove that a drug or intervention actually has benefit. While some of the campaign targets were for small amount of funding (in the range of a few thousand dollars), many campaigns raised over $100,000. A crowdfunding campaign out of Uppsala University raised over $3,000,000 to start a randomized clinical trial of using a virus to target and treat neuroendocrine tumours - without such funding the project likely would not have proceeded. Despite the apparent success of science based crowdfunding campaigns, it is unclear why some programs are more successful than other. Future research is needed to evaluate what factors and strategies can optimize a campaigns fundraising potential.

Crowdfunding campaigns to advance research is not only in the domain of scientists. Through my research, I got in touch with Paul Watson, a father of down syndrome child who was running a crowdfunding campaign for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre. He has now raised over $83,000 (above the campaign target of $75,000) to help fund the first pilot randomized clinical trial of Prozac in mothers who are expecting a down syndrome child. Prozac has shown promise in animal models of down syndrome to improve neurodevelopment and cognition in mice. The human trial is now underway and recruitment has already begun.

Such results are encouraging and have important implications for researchers. Arguments can be made that funding for projects should be awarded only after careful scrutiny by a panel of scientific peers, as is the current practice with grant competitions. However, given the current research climate many projects deserving of money go unfunded, especially smaller pilot studies. Such studies are often conducted by younger faculty who many not be as successful compared to established researchers at obtaining grants. These projects are critically important as they provide data to justify conducting larger trials and can help leverage younger researcher to obtain larger grants down the road. Furthermore, crowdfunding campaigns can be used by experience researchers to supplement existing funds which may allow a graduate student to be hired or further experiments to be conducted. As national research institute tighten their belts and success rates at grant applications plummet, researchers must search elsewhere to support their projects. Crowdfunding may just be the place to look.

Disclosures: I have no relevant disclosures for this post.