Finding funding - a researcher's opinion on a new path to follow

08 June 2012

How many of us have done something crazy in the name of charity? Sponsored marathons, ocean swims, triathlons, “Movember”.

I once took part in the London Moonwalk to raise money for breast cancer research. Imagine the sight of thousands of women walking the length of a marathon through central London, overnight and dressed in a decorated bra! These fantastic events raise both awareness and much needed funds for many charities that support medical research

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But I am struck by the lack of charities that advocate for the diseases caused by infectious microbes – those viruses, bacteria and parasites that like to call us home, even if temporarily. Around the world, one out of every four people who die, are killed by an infectious microbe. That’s nearly 40,000 people every day.

Microbes are masters at adapting to their environment, rearranging their genetic material or gaining new genes from their surroundings. This adaptation is how we get antibiotic resistance and new diseases emerging. We face a not too distant future where many superbugs will be resistant to all the antibiotics available to treat them. Take tuberculosis (TB), once thought all but eradicated. We were wrong. In actual fact, it is estimated that a third of the world’s population carry the TB bacterium in their lungs. TB kills over 4,500 people every day, and there are now patients around the world whose infections are untreatable. Even diseases that we have perfectly good vaccines for cause problems, as a vocal minority choose not to vaccinate, misplacing their fear on the vaccines rather than the microbes.

I want this to change. I want everyone to know how important infectious diseases are: why it’s important not to visit a new baby if you are feeling under the weather or kiss them if you have a cold sore; why people shouldn’t expect a bottle of antibiotics every time they visit the doctor; why they should get vaccinated and vaccinate their children. Most of all, I want people to know why it is important to back science; why the public should support their taxes being used to fund scientific research. I want the public to be interested and excited about what scientists like me are doing.

In these difficult economic times, money is hard to come by. Rates of success for science proposals in New Zealand stand at around 10 percent. This doesn’t mean that only one in ten proposals are considered good enough to fund. It means the funding bodies can’t afford to support lots of excellent  projects. Just think of all the innovations we may be missing out on!

This month, as part of the SciFund Challenge, I’ve joined a small group of scientists from around the world who are reaching out to the public to get involved in their research. We are using a platform that has become increasingly popular with artists, writers and musicians, called crowd funding where, rather than relying on one wealthy benefactor for full funding, people seek small donations (in the 10-100 dollar ballpark) from lots of people in return for “rewards”.For me, as a microbiologist who makes “glow in the dark” bacteria, I am hoping to swap pictures with people’s names written in glowing bacteria or naming rights for new bacteria, for funding to advance my research.

SciFund was born in late 2011 when two ecologists from California, Dr Jai Ranganathan and Dr Jarrett Byrnes, decided to exploit a popular crowd funding website called RocketHub to see if scientists could spend a month engaging with the public, in a similar way to artists and musicians, to help fund their research. Nearly 50 projects were offered up, covering topics as diverse as parasitic plants, flying foxes, Amazonian crabs, domesticating algae, duck erections, Roman slaves, zombie fish and undersea kelp forests. - In the space of 30 days, the scientists raised over US$76,000. So it does seem possible to get the public to open their wallets for science. Which raises the question, as success rates for more traditional funding avenues drop, will platforms like SciFund become more widely used? Only time will tell. 

Written by Dr Siouxsie Wiles (Molecular Medicine and Pathology). Dr Wiles achieved her funding target half way through the month of May and the additional funds she received will enable her project to be expanded further.

The above article was published in Maramatanga, Uninews, Issue 8, Vol 42