Soapbox Science

Research 2.0.1: The future of research funding

Elizabeth Iorns headshot (portrait)
Elizabeth Iorns is
 a breast cancer scientist and the Co-Founder & CEO of Science Exchange, an online marketplace for science experiments. 

This week Elizabeth is hosting a three part series all about the research cycle. Do share your thoughts in the comment thread.

Just as they have transformed many societal domains, digital tools are having a profound impact on the scientific process. As the co-founder and CEO of a company (Science Exchange) that is based on using digital tools to improve science, I am investing my livelihood and my passion in the belief that the next five years will see an unprecedented amount of change in the research landscape as the technology that connects and empowers scientists improves and as research institutions more fully embrace these digital advances.

aThe modern scientific enterprise is a cyclical process. In most cases, it begins with a scientist obtaining funding to pursue a particular hypothesis – i.e., a grant, often from the federal government or a research foundation. The scientist then conducts the necessary observations, experiments or theoretical calculations, either directly or with the help of other scientists, technicians or clinicians. Once the scientist has completed a body of work that represents a novel finding, the results are communicated to the broader scientific community through conference presentations and journal publications, and in some cases to the general public through mainstream media. Scientists are mainly evaluated on the basis of the quality and quantity of publications they author; in particular, their publication record determines whether they will be funded to conduct further research.

In this blog series, I will be exploring how infiltration of the digital world will change each part of the research cycle (Funding, Conducting experiments, Communication and Reputation). In my first post, I will focus on the future of research funding.

The United States alone spent a staggering $436 billion on research and development in 2012 (See: Battelle’s Research Source-Performer matrix). Research funding from private corporations is the largest component ($280 billion), followed by research funding supplied by the U.S. federal government ($125 billion), non-profits including philanthropic foundations ($14.5 billion) and academic research institutions ($12.3 billion).

Despite this enormous outlay, scientists face an increasingly difficult funding environment. Writing for the Huffington Post, Faster Cures Executive Director Margaret Anderson recently recognized funding challenges as one of the top 10 trends in medical research for 2013. And Scientific American recently reported that a typical scientist spends 40% of their time writing grants or other funding applications. One of the main challenges in obtaining research funding is the oversupply of highly trained scientists. The enormous glut of talent, combined with largely flat research budgets in real terms, has driven the success rate (also known as the ‘funding line’) down to less than 15% of grants submitted. This drop in success rates for research grants submitted to traditional funding sources has driven scientists to seek alternative funding sources.

Crowdfunding as a source of research funding

The recent rise of crowdfunding platforms that cater solely to raising money for research projects has captured the imagination of the mainstream media. Examples include Microryza, SciFund, Petridish and the partnership between Indiegogo and UCSF. (Anthony Salvagno recently reviewed his experience crowdfunding a research project on the Science Exchange blog). Admittedly, despite enthusiasm from researchers looking to raise funds, the amounts raised to date for individual research projects are tiny (average $15,000), when compared to the amounts typically raised via federal research grants (average $450,000).

One factor that could prevent crowdfunding from becoming a major source of research funding is – in contrast to other crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter – that research crowdfunding platforms either offer no rewards or rewards that aren’t really valuable such as postcards, coffee mugs or t-shirts. An alternative model that may enable greater investment is via crowd-investment platforms, such as CrowdCure, which allow funders to share in the upside of any IP generated from the research funded. We are also starting to see research funding being raised by individuals not typically thought of as “researchers”, often under the rubric of personalized medicine. is one example of a crowdfunding platform for patients.

Bootstrapping as an alternative to traditional funding sources

As scientists continue to seek alternative funding sources, one increasingly attractive option is to generate funding through performing fee-for-service work for other researchers. The ability to fund a lab through ‘selling’ expertise is very similar to the bootstrapping approach used by many early stage software startups.  For example, as recently profiled in Cell, Tom Voss from Tulane University offers his unique expertise in a specialized ferret model for infectious disease targets as a fee-for-service for industry clients 1-2 days each week and generates over $1 million in funding each year. He spends the remainder of his time conducting his own research. He doesn’t spend any time writing grants. Whereas he might have had trouble advertising his work in a pre-internet age, Tom’s services can now be easily found and requested through Science Exchange.

Funding of non-traditional research careers (or the rise of the ‘freelance scientist’)

Despite spending a median of 7.2 years of graduate training, only 15% of Ph.D.-trained scientists will find employment as a tenure-track professor at a research institution. Along similar lines to bootstrapping of research labs, I believe that scientific freelancers can’t be far behind.  Indeed, on Science Exchange, we already see a number of individuals offering bioinformatics services (which do not require wet lab space or equipment). They offer these services in their own free time, allowing them to supplement their income.

In turn, the easy access to scientific expertise significantly lowers the barrier to commercializing scientific discoveries, making scientific entrepreneurship more attractive to both individuals and investors, and already marked by the rise of “Virtual Biotechs”.

Digital marketplaces, thus, have the potential to transform the way science is paid for.  Next time, I’ll talk about the impact of digital tools on the way research is conducted.

Part 1: Research 2.0.1: The future of research funding

Part 2: Research 2.0.2: How research is conducted 

Part 3: The future of research communication


  1. Report this comment

    galen jack said:

    As an intelligent person, you must realise that the science community, along with the nurses, social workers, unemployed,I do not know how anyone is expected to build a career and any sort of long-term family life on the basis of insecure short term contracts which are standard in UK academia.

  2. Report this comment

    Allison Stelling said:

    @galen jack Re: short term contracts

    This is a major problem in the current scientific economy. Researchers are expected to produce results in 6 months or a year- an impossible feat in many disciplines. This short term outlook hinders important biological work, as tissue cultures in particular can take months- even years- simply to grow. Such contracts may work in certain applied fields- like engineering, where it is possible to have prototypes in short time periods. However, such short terms are a disaster for fields such as medicine and biomedical research, which are naturally constrained by the time it takes for life to grow,

    A solution would be to scrap the idea of “permanent positions”- but, hire people in such fields on long term contracts; like 5 years and 10 years. This allows for the time required to let the science happen, but does provide incentives to produce quality work. Good workers should be given assurances of continuing contracts, and non-productive ones can be released. -Allison,

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