Over the years science funding has changed significantly. In the past, funding would have been obtained through private benefaction from wealthy individuals. Today, researchers are usually funded by a mixture of grants from government agencies, non-profit foundations and institutions. However, with the increasing popularity of social media and the internet, methods used to obtain money may be undergoing a shift. New routes linking funding sources with scientists are being increasingly explored. Tighter budgets and struggling economies are driving a need for new ways of funding and social media is proving to be invaluable in raising awareness of projects and linking like-minded people more effectively.
In this special Soapbox Science series, we focus on the new ways in which science groups and individuals are obtaining funding and how projects such as Petridish, Tekla Labs, Kickstarter and the #scifundchallenge may change the future of scientific research.
Lina Nilsson is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Berkeley, where she works on the development and evaluation of CellScope, a portable smartphone-based microscope that can be used to diagnose infectious diseases in low-resource rural settings worldwide. She is also the co-founder of Tekla Labs, an initiative to increase access to laboratory infrastructure globally. Tekla Labs is a community of researchers that creates easy-to-follow instructions for how to build research-grade laboratory equipment using locally available supplies.
To take part in Tekla Labs’ 3D printing for science competition, visit us at teklalabs.org. General comments, equipment building instructions and ideas for future initiatives are also welcome.
Individual Scientists as Active Global Citizens.
Meeting global challenges in health, environment and development will require breakthroughs from the entire global scientific community, not just a selected set of industrialized countries. Today, the potential of many scientists in developing countries is not being efficiently harnessed because they lack adequate hands-on training as well as the infrastructure to advance research in their own labs. These international capacity-gaps are generally tackled on the level of governments, NGOs and large institutions. In reality, to address the pressing global challenges, we do not have the luxury of time or money to rely solely on these conventional measures for capacity building. I argue here that the scientific community should also step up to address international inequities in science research by engaging individual scientists on a grassroots level. With crowd-based initiatives that allow many individuals to contribute in small and easy ways, scientists can become active members of a global science community.
My organization, Tekla Labs, is one small example of such a grassroots initiative. We provide a community platform where academic researchers, DIY enthusiasts and others can share their detailed in-house solutions to building standard laboratory equipment. These DIY solutions can range from the most basic (e.g. a kitchen blender adapted into a multi-speed benchtop centrifuge) to the more sophisticated (LED-light spectrophotometer). However, Tekla Labs is only one example of how individual researchers can help lift the global scientific research base. Scientists are a creative and engaged group, and we should create a multitude of infrastructure options to channel some of this energy to support research in emerging-science regions of the world. To start the dialogue, I propose ideas for three projects with a low energy-barrier for entry that could engage individuals to improve scientific research worldwide:
- Kickstarter for Science. Online crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter allow artists to solicit funding from individuals for creative projects in areas such as film and music. What if there was a similarly well-visited and well-supported site for scientific research projects, where researchers worldwide could pitch their research projects, large and small? Instead of having to convince a small set of expert reviewers (who tend to favor established scientists from well-known institutions and generally are limited to in-country solicitations), the proposals would be written to a larger online community of people interested in scientific inquiry. With a ‘Kickstarter for Science,’ individuals – whether academic researchers, company scientists or lay enthusiasts – could pool their donations (in money, expertise or time) to support research projects internationally in areas such as education, health and sustainability. A successful “Kickstarter for Science” could be an easy opportunity for individuals to support fellow researchers globally on specific, defined projects in areas that we care passionately about as scientists.
- Buy Your Consumables, Sponsor a Lab. What if every time you bought basic supplies, like pipette tips or falcon tubes, a small donation was made by the supply company to a ‘sponsored’ laboratory in a developing country? Last year, Kate Lovero at Tekla Labs ran a small pilot program with the help of the local representative of one of the major laboratory supply companies. The set up was simple: Based on a given percentage of the value of the purchases from our group of laboratories, the supply company allowed a partner laboratory in Peru to order reagents free of charge. In the U.S., companies that sell lab consumables often offer small incentives for university research groups, such as free coffee, pizza, or ‘buy 10 get 1 free’ promotions. We get plenty of free pizza opportunities at our university as is, and one could say that we basically replaced the standard incentive system with an international donation program that was based on our purchases. I propose that some version of this sponsorship program should be more widely offered by laboratory supply companies. Many of us are scientists because we want to in some way have positive impact on the world, and this could be one small but easy way to do so as part of the every-day running of our laboratories.
- PRINTmyLAB: 3D-printing for science. My organization, Tekla Labs, addresses the lack of laboratory infrastructure across the world by creating DIY blueprints for building your own equipment. Other organizations have extensive donation programs for used or new equipment. For my last project proposal, I give you something more radical: PRINTmyLAB. What basic repairs, supplies and equipment could be made locally using a 3D printer? NASA is exploring 3D printing as a flexible approach for replacing spare parts in space on the principle that if you can simply bring the machine that makes the parts, then you bring all the different replacement parts you could possibly need? Not too long ago, even basic-functionality 3D printers cost tens of thousands of dollars. Today, the cheapest versions are well under $1000, and prices are continually dropping for all model levels. In PRINTmyLAB, a competition that Tekla Labs is currently running, we ask what science supplies could be printed on location in labs around the globe? Until April 30th, we are challenging researchers to submit their favorite 3D printer designs. There are two categories: 1) alternatives to commercial options and 2) novel DIY designs. To learn more about rules, prizes and to submit designs, go to teklalabs.org/3Dprinting.
This article is a call for individual scientists to become more active global citizens and to work together to improve scientific research and education for all. While for some, this is a calling that defines their career, it does not have to be one’s main focus to be valuable. I want to show here that there are also small yet impactful ways in which we could all contribute to the global science community. What we are missing are the platforms to enable simple and straightforward scientist-to-scientist sharing of resources, expertise and ideas.
Thanks go out to Tekla Labs’ members Kevin Lance, Kate Lovero, Bertram Koelsch, Javier Rosa, Todd Duncombe and Naomi Kort for their awesome work on Tekla Labs in general and the initiatives ‘PRINTmyLAB’ and ‘Buy Your Consumables, Sponsor a Lab’ in particular.
To find out more about science funding you can read this special Nature News feature, Finding philanthropy: Like it? Pay for it.