Sign of the times: Crowdfunding for scientific research

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Ottawa Citizen | By Elizabeth Payne | June 13, 2017

Eric Fisher is a biochemist who was headed for a career researching heart disease when he abruptly changed course. Now, instead of doing his own research, he has created a crowdfunding platform to help other scientists raise money to continue their work at a time when money for science is scarce.

Labfundr, as the platform is called, is a sign of the times for science funding in Canada.

See: Crowdfunding the Canadian Knowledge Economy

Halifax-based Fisher, who did an undergrad degree at the University of Ottawa and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Dalhousie University, said he was stunned to see the troubles Canadian scientists were facing when it came to getting funding.

Changes in recent years at the country’s main biomedical research funding body, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, have caused turmoil in the research community and left many wondering how they can continue their research because funding dollars are increasingly scarce. CIHR reforms included changes to the peer review system and how funding is distributed, among other things.

“There is sort of a quiet crisis brewing. It really is a huge problem,” said Fisher.

He was interested in the crowdfunding phenomenon, which has been successfully used around the world to raise money for scientific research and engage the general public in science — no small thing in an age of alternate facts and anti-science undercurrents.

In Canada, he found, there was no platform to help launch crowdfunding campaigns for scientific research.

“A lot of countries have science crowdfunding platforms. Canada is a little behind in a lot of ways.”

See: Scientists turn to crowdfunding to help pay for research

In the U.S., for example, the American Gut Project, which studies the microbiome, has been called one of the largest crowd-sourced, citizen science projects in the country.

Fisher calls the project, which has raised more than $1 million and engaged many people in science, the “rockstar” of the science crowdfunding world. In addition to raising money for the research, it involves the public by allowing people to compare the microbes in their gut to thousands of others. Similar crowdfunded, open-sourced gut projects are underway in other countries.

LabFundr launched its first crowdfunding campaign last month — to raise $10,000 for CALIPER (Canadian Laboratory Initiative on Paediatric Reference Intervals), a national study of health indicators in Canadian children based at Toronto’s SickKids Hospital. The money raised will be used to expand a database of blood test values taken from healthy Canadian children to provide medical professionals with a tool in clinical practice.

Healthy blood test values, or reference intervals, are typically used by doctors to determine if a patient is healthy or unhealthy. Such intervals for children and teens are lacking, said Dr. Khosrow Adeli, lead researcher for CALIPER.

“This kind of database will assist pediatricians from across the country and around the world in making healthcare decisions for our children.”

Fisher said crowdfunding can fill funding gaps and might support work that helps researchers later receive major funding. It also helps engage and educate the public about scientific research.

“I think things have evolved and now scientists don’t have the luxury of being able to work in the lab and not talk to the public. The anti-science sentiment is proof of that. Science needs to reconnect with the public – that is almost more important in the long-term than helping to fill the funding gaps, which are absolutely urgent.”

Fisher also said he thinks he can have a bigger impact by creating Labfundr than doing research. “I see this as a way I could have a big positive impact.”

As to whether a shift to crowdfunding means governments will be less inclined to support scientific research, Fisher said the two are not comparable, but crowdfunded projects can complement larger-scale research.

 

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The National Crowdfunding Association of Canada (NCFA Canada) is a cross-Canada non-profit actively engaged with both social and investment crowdfunding stakeholders across the country. NCFA Canada provides education, research, leadership, support, and networking opportunities to over 1500+ members and works closely with industry, government, academia, community and eco-system partners and affiliates to create a strong and vibrant crowdfunding industry in Canada. Learn more at www.ncfacanada.org.

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