Scientists tap crowd funding for research: Medical researcher Martin Rees. Photo: Jessica Hromas
In heart disease, the same stuff that makes snot green finds its way into the body’s arteries, making their walls sticky and prone to damage.
Sydney medical researcher Martin Rees and his team want to understand how these inflammatory proteins cause havoc so they can develop drugs that target them.
With heart disease one of the leading causes of death in Australia, its easy to imagine this project's potential.
But Dr Rees faces a problem many young researchers with brilliant ideas experience. After narrowly missing out on the latest round of highly competitive government grant funding, Dr Rees has run out of money to continue his research.
Rather than abandon their ideas and leave research for more lucrative corporate careers, a growing number of early-career scientists are appealing to the public to raise money through crowd funding websites.
Dr Rees' campaign is one of the first to launch on Thinkable, a website for researchers to explain their research to the public and seek sponsorship.
The site's founder, University of NSW oceanographer Ben McNeil, said of the roughly 10,000 research ideas submitted to government research funding schemes, such as those run by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council, only about 20 per cent are funded.
"About 50 percent of the rejected ideas are high-quality, but simply can't be funded through budget constraints," he said.
The federal government's latest budget cut $420 million dollars from several science organisations.
McNeil said the idea of Thinkable was to carry the public along the journey of a particular research area, not just support a single project.
"It’s trying to open up the world of research, and engage the public in a much better way that isn't based on scientific jargon," he said.
Dr McNeil is a strong advocate for early-career researchers, partly because studies show they are most productive and creative, and because the current funding system does not work in their favour.
The average age of a researcher awarded grant money is mid 40s. And although the ARC and the NHMRC provide specific funding for early-career researchers, the number of researchers far outweighs the number of grants awarded each year.
Many early-career researchers are often employed by institutes or universities on short-term contracts. Dr Rees, whose contract at UNSW ended in July, says people who stay in science are passionate because "there are so many slings and arrows that no one stays in research for long if they're not totally invested in it".
"Any money I get from the crowd funding will keep me in the lab for an extra day," said Dr Rees.
Melanie Thomson, an infectious disease researcher from Deakin University who has run two crowd funding campaigns with website Pozible, said the success of crowd funding for science came from the public having direct access to scientists and their work.
"What you're really doing is giving [the public] access to boffins," she said.
While the more than $20,000 raised by both campaigns was small compared to the money handed out by government grants, Dr Thomson said the money has paid for the expensive chemicals and reagents she uses in her research.
"If you look at the time [spent on the campaigns] versus return it is less than the minimum wage, but [you do it for] the impact you have on communicating your science and research and the knock-on effects and goodwill," said Dr Thomson.
While Thomson, McNeil and Rees are all highly regarded in their fields, seeking funds for research directly from the public, many of whom would not have the background to judge the merit of the project or the researcher, could result in dodgy or bad science getting funded.
Dr McNeil said Thinkable would only allowed researchers affiliated with accredited research organisations to use the site and any funds donated would be managed by the organisation to ensure they were used for research.