Superbug Hunters and Princeton-Grade Meth: The Dawn of Crowd Funded Science

Posted on 10/10/2012


Crowding Discovey

On October 1st, French pharmaceutical startup Antabio announced that it had crowd funded its way into existence, with the help of French-based crowd funding service WiSEED. Later reports indicated that some 200 investors had contributed roughly $388,000 to help the company begin work on its stated goal, to find new ways of countering the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

And on October 4th, Princeton University fellow Ethan Perlstein launched the Crowdsourcing Discovery project on US-based crowd funding service RocketHub, attempting to raise $25,000 towards a three month scientific study to investigate the precise effects of amphetamines on the brain. The goal is, by crowd funding standards, modest, but the prospect is relatively unprecedented. The most generous fuelers, as RocketHub calls its contributors, would participate in brainstorming sessions to help shape the final paper, which would ultimately be submitted to an open access scholarly journal.

If both Antabio and Perlstein can produce results, the impact on the way we fund and conduct science could be dramatic. Even if they don’t, the basic premise, that the crowd can back specific kinds of research, and presumably receive some sort of direct reward, has been validated. The news this past June of the crowd funded discovery of a 4-year-old’s genetic disorder was big, but in keeping with the unimpeachable rubric of trends materializing in threes, this is the month when crowd funded science arrived.

Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that it’s already starting to look a little unseemly. Not so much in the case of that little girl, or Antabio, which issued a relatively detail-light press release about its fundraising, and whose interaction with WiSEED—how much it’s earned, what its specific stretch goals might be—is almost impenetrable to outsiders. Though the mechanics of crowd funding differ from traditional investment models, by all accounts, WiSEED has simply mapped old conventions to an online interface. Backers typically become shareholders, contributing a minimum of €100 per company. And WiSEED’s portfolio of startups is extremely limited, and restricted to actual startups as opposed to projects—no performance-artist residencies or “send me to comedy school” campaigns to speak of.

Crowdsourcing Discovery, on the other hand, embraces the new hucksterism of Kickstarter-era crowd funding with gusto, including the requisite “aren’t we adorable?” video pitch. Set to a bouncy score, the stop-motion clip effectively summarizes the project’s goals—to not only enhance our understanding of what meth and other amphetamines actually do to our brains, but to pioneer a new, more open approach to scientific investigation, an alternative to the grant-request paradigm and its 80 percent (on average, per scientist) rejection rate.

It’s crazy cute. Words and faces chalk themselves out on blackboards, an array of props wiggle to and fro, and a candle turns into a rocket. And yet, there are moments like the one up top, where the promise of blog updates and video reports is accompanied by … hold up, is that Walter White and Jesse, from Breaking Bad? Maybe. After all, some incarnation of meth will have to be “cooked,” or obtained, really, or otherwise manipulated in the lab. Why not drop some subtle illustration humor into your plea to launch a rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific exploration of the potentially crippling and lethal neurological impact of amphetamines?

In fact, it’s not my overactive, pearl-clutching imagination—Perlstein was upfront with this bit back in September, with a blog post titled “Crowdfund my meth lab, yo,” featuring a full-on photo from Breaking Bad. Hooray for scientists being sort of badass! And yet, there’s a quality to this project that’s unsettling, and that doesn’t appear to have been mentioned in previous coverage. In the world of marketing we’ve sailed past edgy, and even irreverent, and are circling a vortex of abject Bunuelian weirdness, where Old Spice cements its brand with interactive, drum-controlling pectoral muscles, and nothing is too cloying or off-putting, so long as it works. But is science supposed to sing and dance for us? Should a not-for-profit study, seeking money through a service that hands over funds even if the goal isn’t reached, market itself so brazenly, with all the tricks and trappings of the commercial sector?

To be fair, some of the startups on WiSEED offer their own twee animated pitches, along with more standard, anonymously corporate video presentation. But these are companies, with an expectation—or possibly a duty to their shareholders—to actively market themselves. Crowdsourcing Discovery isn’t seeking profits, but it wants that money, so it’s selling various levels of inclusion. If you hand over $100, the researchers will meet up with you for cocktails at some point. $200 gets you access to a brainstorming session, and $500 earns you a “real-life lab meeting,” and acknowledgement in the eventual paper. The top-most tier, $1000, is worth two of those lab meetings, a Google Doc of the publication manuscript as its being drafted, and maybe, if your input is spot-on, a credit as a co-author.

This is one way of making science more accessible, and more open-source. The British government is trying another tack, requiring all tax-funded studies to be made free and available online starting next year. And the growth of open access journals around the world is challenging the hegemony of traditional, often wildly expensive scientific journals. The success or failure of Crowdsourcing Discovery—currently at $5290, out of a requested $25,000, with 39 days to go—might determine whether scientists should do as the musicians and the filmmakers and the indie game designers do, and get aggressively chummy with the public. If it works, and the competition for the science with the most mass appeal (and best booze) heats up, those ivory towers are about to get a lot more colorful. Say goodbye to that sick man of the funding world, the stodgy old grant system, and hello to an ongoing deathmatch for the jauntiest, most toe-tapping AIDS research video.



Video still via Crowdsourcing Discovery’s project page

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