Tag Archive | "research"

Tags: , , , , ,

Should Governments Crowdsource Science Research Funding?


This post was originally published on Huffington Post Science on March 14, 2012.

Recently, I wrote about the trials and tribulations of social networks focused on scientific researchers. I painted a fairly dim picture. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are those in the scientific community who are interested in disruptive innovation within a somewhat traditional and reclusive community.

Here’s another example of such innovation happening. Petridish.org is a new Web platform that empowers users to explore the world around them by participating in funding scientific research projects. Not unlike the well-known Kickstarter, the project owners set a minimum amount of dollars that need to be pledged for the project to happen, and a deadline to achieve that goal. Pledges can go above that goal, but if they fall below the goal by the deadline the entire project basically doesn’t happen.

Not unlike what you may be used to seeing during a public television station pledge drive, there are different incentives offered by the researchers for different levels of pledges, too.

Let’s explain how this works by way of an example. I’m a former insect biologist myself, so I have a certain weakness for things like flies, bees, and ants. Here’s a project from Petridish.org all about ants: New Species of Ants in Madagascar, submitted by Brian Fisher, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences with an “infectious passion for ants.” There’s a video in the previous weblink, and here’s part of the project description:

Deep in the tropical forests of Madagascar, a France-sized island teeming with strange creatures, ants glue together the richest of ecosystems. The tiny insects are armed to protect their homes with bites, stings, acid sprays and even strangling. Yet their real war against human encroachment is failing — only 10 percent of Madagascar’s natural habitat remains.
To save Madagascar’s forests, researchers need to know what’s in them.

I’m Brian Fisher, a conservationist with the California Academy of Sciences, and I’m ready to hop in a raft, navigate a wild uncharted river and scale treacherous cliffs with a team of extreme sports professionals as guides.

It’s not about bragging rights, however — it’s a race against time.

Very dramatic! This sounds like a pretty decent movie description. In all seriousness though, in my experience a lot of researchers are not able to describe what they do to average people very well, never mind enhance their factual descriptions with colorful language. Granted, hunting for ants in a tropical forest is a little more exotic than your average research project, but that’s besides the point.

Where will my money go?

Without discovering what Kasijy harbors it’s tough to convince locals — and the rest of the world — that it and other Madagascar wilderness is worth preserving. For now it’s a forest begging to be turned into firewood and grassland.
My expedition aims to:

Inventory Kasijy’s untold new species and document their roles in a pristine natural ecosystem.
Understand the biodiversity patterns of Madagascar and resolve our “bioilliteracy” of the Kasijy forest.
Set up more robust conservation plans for the island.
Raise awareness of Madagascar’s natural wonders and its ongoing plight.

But the logistics of five inflatable rafts, provisions, a small team of scientists and professional guides won’t pay for itself. To enable the whirlwind expedition, I’ll need $10,000. Another $10,000 would help support laboratory work, including the identification, description and publication of new species, and the training of local Malagasy scientists to do such work and become local stewards of their wilderness.

But hey — what do I get out of my donation?? Here’s some incentives:

  • At the 1-20 level, you’re just helping the project and expect nothing.
  • At the 20-100 level, you get updates from the research team in the field.
  • At the 100-250 level, you get a small stone souvenir taken from the highest point in Madagascar, plus all of the above.
  • At the 250-500 level, you get an original signed photo from the field, plus all of the above.
  • At the 500-1000 level, you get recognition in scientific journals where the work is published, plus all of the above.
  • At the 1000-5000 level, you get a behind the scene tour of the CA Academy of Sciences, plus all of the above.
  • At the 5000+ level, the research team will name a novel species of ant after you or a loved one, plus all of the above.

Pretty cool stuff, and reasonable for the research team to provide as well. Imagine this as potential birthday or holiday gifts for sons or daughters or nieces or nephews interested in science. And this is just one project on Petridish.

What’s the current status of Brian Fisher’s project? They have $7,901 out of $10,000 needed with about 24 days to go at time of writing.

In the U.S, the federal government — mainly via the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Departments of Energy and Defense — is the largest funding resource for academic science research like what’s described above with ants in Madagascar. Despite the relatively specialized nature of such research, there are nevertheless thousands and thousands of such projects just within the U.S., dreamed up by undergrads, grad students, postdocs, part-time and teaching faculty, and more senior full-time research professors and senior research scientists. Most of them do not get funded, because of the relative limits of government funds and the stiff competition.

And a lot of the research (like the ants of Madagascar) will not be funded by corporations because the work isn’t applied enough. Sure, sure, the research could turn out something akin to Sean Connery’s work in Medicine Man — but more than likely not. Drug companies and similar organizations gamble, but usually at a more applied stage, not for the more basic levels of academic research.

What we have in America is a system by which many graduate students achieve their Ph.D.’s and often can secure a postdoctoral fellowship, but then are not able to then move to the next level with a tenured professorship and federal grant money. The reason? There are quite a few reasons. Some are practical — obviously, a given university has limited office and lab space so they can’t hire indefinite numbers of professors, no matter how good they are. Another practical reason is that some people, despite having a doctoral degree and some experience, are simply not cut out for being a tenured professor. But another huge reason is that significant research universities largely rely on professors to “pay their own way” via grants that fund research and from which schools can take a percentage for “indirect costs” like infrastructure (mail, lights, heat, electricity…).

Fair enough. There is a place for this system. But for the B+ and A- researchers (if you will) who have great ideas but for whatever disadvantages are not in the top tier of people who are getting large grants and landing top professorships, is there no alternative?

Companies like Fundageek and Petridish seem to have come up with one. Now anyone — a smart high school student, a part-time high school science teacher, an overly ambitious grad student at Harvard, anyone — can write some convincing text, have some amazing photo and video collateral, and pitch an idea and make their project come to life through a great crowdsourcing platform.

But why are private companies like Petridish and Fundageek providing platforms for this, while agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation aren’t? Promoting and funding innovative projects which help America in some way seems like something the scientific and technically oriented arms of the U.S. government should be involved with. Perhaps there are some legal or other reasons why say the NIH can’t run a crowdsourcing platform on a .gov website; I’d be curious to hear those facts/arguments. But perhaps government agencies should approach Petridish and Fundageek and others and find a way to build a public-private partnership which helps everyone — government, private sector, and academia — involved?

About seven years ago or so, the NIH started requiring two abstracts for submitted research grants — one technical and one that could be understood by general audiences. At the time, I thought this was a great thing. Maybe something like what Petridish is doing with an array of videos, photos, text, and a way for citizens to participate is the next step for government support of scientific research. Of course, there will always be a role for direct government funding via grants; but might crowdsourcing not be a way to supplement the funding of great ideas, or alternatively fund “honorable mention” projects which show promise but don’t make the cut for full government funding yet?

This week, a group of Senators introduced the CROWD FUND act, which would allow small companies and individual entrepreneurs to raise up to $1 million a year by making their case directly to investors via “crowdsourcing” — perhaps this is the wave of the future?

Posted in External WritingComments Off

Tags: , , , ,

Social Networks for Scientists Won’t Work


This post was originally published on Huffington Post Science on February 8, 2012.

A “Facebook for Scientists”? It may sound silly, or redundant, but it’s becoming more of a reality. Maybe.

A new startup based in Germany named ResearchGate has already convinced roughly 1.4 million researchers to become members and begin sharing. On it, you can search your email accounts to find people you know, read PDF documents of research papers, and chat with others about why a particular lab technique isn’t working for you. Reportedly, the service is appealing to young researchers in their 20’s.

None of this is particularly original. There have long been scientists on Facebook and LinkedIn and connecting via other websites like Scienceblogs. There have long been stores of PDF documents online, and searchable databases of them (particularly if you work at a university). There have long been job boards where you might find your next gig. And there have long been discussion boards or similar places where you could ask questions about lab techniques or which conference to attend this year.

The Economist writes about ResearchGate as if it’s the only social network for scientists out there, but that’s far from the case. Others have come before, and some are already gone. One that sounds somewhat similar was called Labmeeting; here, it’s highlighted in a June 2008 post in TechCrunch, with a vast vision (co-founder Mark Kaganovich: “What we are trying to do is change the way information in biomedical research and the medical community is distributed and retrieved.”) and a $500,000 seed round of funding from Peter Thiel and others. But Labmeeting.com no longer directs anywhere, and Crunchbase lists the fledgling company as in the “deadpool” as of 1/1/11.

It’s not really clear what ResearchGate is doing that’s fundamentally different than Labmeeting.

But the ecosystem seems even worse, because many others have tried and failed, or tried and not necessarily caught on, or tried and are much more like “science publication management software” than a social network where people openly share. They have names like Academia.edu, Laboratree, Mendeley, myExperiment, and Epernicus. Scitable.com was launched by the Nature Publishing Group in 2009 as “a social network for scientists and scholars” but it currently looks like… a very nice website, or extremely fancy blog — which is fine in itself, but it’s not a social network, not really. The National Institutes of Health was reportedly funding yet another social network for scientists; I’m not sure if it ever happened.

It’s easy to measure total users or total PDF’s uploaded or other metrics and claim some success. And we’re not really picking on any particular social network effort here. But why haven’t any of these platforms truly caught on in the scientific community? Fundamentally, it’s because they are add-ons to “the way things get done” and not replacements for the way scientists work day-to-day or how their careers are judged (i.e., you don’t get promoted for great science tweeting).

This story about Science 2.0 reminds me of a slightly older debate about Intelligence 2.0, whereby the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) built Intellipedia and other social tools with which analysts could collaborate in real time around information, data, breaking news across agencies and job descriptions. It sounds great, and there were users, mainly younger ones passionate about innovative tools and approaches. Here’s a great video about “Living Intelligence,” also known as Purple Intelligence (i.e., mixing red and blue) — It’s a great video, a vision of how intelligence analysis could be.

But at the end of the day, living intelligence is not the vision by which the IC operates, for the most part. The way that analysts are measured is not by how many edits they made on the wiki page for a town in Iraq, but rather by writing old-fashioned reports for their agency or other traditional tasks. The problem is that Intellipedia was an add-on to what their job was; not the way they did their primary job. That negative feedback loop is enough to ensure that the innovation of Intellipedia never really makes it past the “chasm of death.”

The same is true of science, which I have some firsthand experience with (I have a Ph.D. in animal behavior genetics and did academic biology research for about a decade). The scientific community fundamentally operates under the notion that a peer-reviewed research paper published in a traditional research journal is the discrete end-product of a series of experiments aimed at testing one or more hypotheses. Anyone who has actually been a laboratory scientist knows that this is a complete farse; I need not even elaborate on why. Nevertheless, publishing such papers is the primary yardstick by which you are judged as a grad student, postdoctoral fellow, and professor, even at the more senior levels. On top of that, the same exact research published in a “good” journal vs. an “okay” journal is somehow emotionally different to the reader. The only reason why is perceived prestige of some publications vs. others regardless of actual long-term value of the research.

Social networks for scientists will face precisely the same challenges as those within the IC. These are two-fold. One, a culture of secrecy whereby the more “secret” information (vs. community / shared information) is perceived as more valuable. Two, a culture of discrete publications (vs. living knowledge and data sets) whereby people are primarily judged by traditional processes dating back, in the case of science, a couple hundred years. And while there are some well-intentioned, smart people discussing Science 2.0 and what it would take for that to happen, it is in my opinion extremely unlikely that the entire system of how academic science operates in the U.S. will change within the venture capital-backed funding cycle of one of the science social networking companies like ResearchGate.

From what people tell me, the IC is slowly changing. Certain individuals over a period of years have fought the good fight to change the workflow of intelligence analysts, leveraging new social technologies and making the work and the products more agile and indeed, “living.” The full story is for another time, but the point is that it can happen. I know some of the individuals involved in the IC story, and their road has not been easy. The roadblocks thrown in their path have been significant. They traveled a very long, complicated path because they believed in a vision, a better way of doing things. But most importantly, they didn’t just talk amongst themselves, but rather took the fight to the middle management of intelligence agencies, and to the senior leadership.

There are some voices like this in science, to some degree or another. Will they persevere against the system?

Posted in External WritingComments Off

  • Popular
  • Latest
  • Comments
  • Tags
  • Subscribe

Search this website

Post Archive