As Research Budgets Dwindle, Scientists and Universities Turn to the Crowd

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For young scientists, finding money to support basic research can be difficult. Federal research budgets are shrinking, and grant applications can be a time sink, removing researchers from their lab or their graduate work.

Some young scientists are now forgoing traditional funding mechanisms, and turning to the power of the crowd.

Sarah McAnulty, a second-year Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut, studies a tiny, very cute animal: the Hawaiian bobtail squid. “It’s about the size of a lime,” she said. “All day, they bury under the sand and hide from predators. These are nocturnal animals.”

Because they hunt at night, the squid have developed a “partnered” relationship with a glowing bacteria — what scientists call a symbiosis. “When the squid swim around at night this bacteria glows and it prevents the squid from having a silhouette against the moon,” McAnulty said.

Think of the bacteria as a cloaking device for squid: bad news for prey, but a huge advantage for predators.

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McAnulty wants to understand more about that symbiosis, like how the squid’s immune system can differentiate between the good, glowing bacteria, and bacteria that would be harmful. She said it’s research that could eventually have implications in human medicine.

How is the lab paying for it?

"Most of it has been through the University of Connecticut Research Foundation and through the National Science Foundation," said Spencer Nyholm, associate professor of molecular and cellular biology at UConn, who is advising the project. "They’ve been great at supporting our research, but in recent days, funding has become really challenging …the funding rates have dropped, and the number of scientists have increased."

That means limited resources. In 2013, the success rate for proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health was around 20 percent, which means more and more, young researchers like Sarah McAnulty and her lab partner, Ph.D. student Andrea Suria, are crowdfunding their work, making the case for science to a lay audience of what they “cephalopod enthusiasts.”

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They say it’s making them better science communicators. “In the beginning, we might have said something like the bacteria lives in an organ on the ventral side of the squid,” McAnulty said. “We forget that ventral isn’t a word that everybody knows, so we had to switch it to an organ on the underside of the squid.”

McAnulty has set a relatively modest goal for her project, $2,500, which she will use to maintain the lab’s squid collection and do bloodwork that builds on the work of previous graduate students.

"This really is an additional mechanism by which to raise funds," said Lynn Fiellin, associate professor of medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. This week, she’s helping to launch a new initiative at Yale — a "curated" Kickstarter page for academic projects.

"There are a lot of people out there who are interested in contributing to projects — to ideas — to, say, something that’s happening at Yale. But they may only want or be able to contribute $5.00 or $10.00," Fiellin said. "In a crowd setting, that can be really exciting."

It’s something universities like Stanford and MIT are already using to fund research, despite large their endowments and big donors.

Fiellin said crowd funding won’t replace conventional funding mechanisms, or big donors who give to schools. “Everyone is strapped. All universities are strapped,” she said. “There’s not this free flow of funds all over the place to support projects, even if a university like Yale, which is very supportive of innovation, wants to do that.”

Fiellin said crowdfunding can also allow scientists to get money in hand quicker. “It actually would serve a number of purposes,” she said. “An alternative to conventional funding, it would help to really publicize the work being done in an institution, and it could make the turnaround time for actually developing projects and getting them out there much shorter.”

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Back at UConn, Sarah McAnulty and Andrea Suria reached their $2,500 goal within days, in part by offering that their donors creative incentives like squid prints (see above), or encouraging a $20.00 donation to name a juvenile squid in the lab. “We’ve gotten two Squid Viciouses, and we’ve gotten a Squid Pro Quo,” McAnulty said.

McAnulty said she’s still receiving donations well in excess of her goal. That additional money will go directly back into the research, helping them buy an antibody to do more complicated experiments on squid immune cells. 

Photos: UConn, Nyholm Lab / Squid Scientists

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