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“Fund Me:” Researchers who can’t get corporate funding forced to get creative

December 3, 2013
by Glen Martin

With government funding more scarce, corporations have stepped in to underwrite an increasing amount of research in academia—as we’ve reported, industry now accounts for about 10 percent of funding for research at UC Berkeley, double the percentage it was two decades ago. But what about the iconoclastic researchers—the ones whose work is either irrelevant to, or at cross-purposes with, the profit-minded interests of corporate funders? The ones whose research could conceivably show that a drug has harmful side effects, or that a pesticide wreaks environmental damage, or that some problem may have a solution that cannot be monetized?

Nonprofit foundations and wealthy philanthropists offer alternative sources, but the difference in scale between what they can provide and what multinational corporations routinely fund can be exponential.

“Yes, we get some grants, but they’re insufficient,” says Miguel Altieri, a sustainable agriculture proponent and Cal professor of entomology. “Fully 99 percent of (public and private agricultural) university funding goes to industrial agriculture—biocide and transgenic research, and so forth.  Alternative agriculture gets about 1 percent. For us, a $50 thousand foundation grant is significant, which is why much of our work is focused on things such as urban gardens and farmer-to-farmer outreach. Cheap stuff.”

Now, however, a new model for underwriting academic research is gaining some real fiscal traction, and it had its genesis at Cal: crowdfunding.

This neologism applies to the practice of soliciting project funds from a large number of people via social media. The idea was hatched and first developed as a platform by then-Haas School of Business  graduate student Danae Ringelmann. Her start-up, Indiegogo, is not the largest crowdfunding platform (that designation goes to Kickstarter), but by most accounts it remains one of the most democratic: Ringelmann does not “curate,” or establish base qualifications, for potential fundraisers.

“It’s clear that more and more people are considering (crowdfunding) as an alternative form of financing in higher education, whether it’s a specific student looking to pay his or her way, or ambitious R&D,” Ringelmann says.

The forces that led to this are unmistakable: The good old days of ample public funding are as long gone as the Apatosaurus. Many people say Cal is now more properly described as a “publicly assisted” rather than “publicly funded” university.

“In terms of percentages, corporate funding has remained fairly stable for most public universities for quite a while,” says Elizabeth Popp Berman, an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany, SUNY, who earned her master’s and doctorate at Cal. As the author of Creating the Market University:  How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine (Princeton Press, 2012), she observes that corporate funding for scientific research and development has hovered at between 5 to 7 percent of the budget for most schools since the 1980s.

“For Cal it’s somewhat more, due to the particularly deep (state) budget cuts,” Berman says. “In the late 1990s, corporate funding constituted about 5 percent of the budget. Now it’s up to about 10 percent.”

That percentage is “not huge,” and concerns about potential conflicts of interest are overblown, Vice Chancellor for Research Graham Fleming has maintained. Referencing, for example, the $500 million investment in the University-based Energy Biosciences Institute from BP (the oil giant formerly known as British Petroleum), he stressed that the company stands at arm’s length from decision-making. “BP has no line-item veto power,” he told us in August. “They can decide that they don’t want to focus on certain areas of research, but they can’t just say ‘we don’t like this professor or we don’t like this research project.’ “

Some researchers on campus have come to view corporate funding as necessary— a savior of worthwhile research that otherwise might go unfunded, and undone.

“I think John Wilton (UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor for finance) got it right when he noted that the solution isn’t pointing to Sacramento and yelling at the top of your lungs,” says Cal professor of mechanical engineering David Dornfeld.  “That’s not where the money will come from.  We have to confront reality.

“We’re functioning more like a private school these days. Fees and grants account for more of the budget. That said, we need safeguards. We must make sure our research is not directed through corporate boards, and I think we’re doing a good job with that,” Dornfeld continues. “Cal is very much a faculty-driven place. Scholarships, promotion, tenure—they’re all determined by faculty committees. Everyone is always double-checking everything. Also, unless there’s a special dispensation—which is rare—everyone teaches, both graduate and undergraduate courses. Despite some changes in funding, the research mission remains well-balanced with the teaching mission.”

Not everyone agrees.

The most recent example, of course, is the battle involving endocrinology professor Tyrone Hayes. Having lost his lab funding at Cal, he suggested the University might be retaliating against him because his research demonstrated a link between sex changes in frogs and the herbicide Atrazine, a compound made by the biotech firm Syngenta. Syngenta is a company spun-off from the Swiss conglomerate Novartis, which cut a $25 million, five-year research agreement with Cal’s College of Natural Resources in 1999. (That deal ended in 2003, when Novartis withdrew due to dissatisfaction over investment returns.) Fleming responded that Hayes, who has struggled to secure funding, simply didn’t pay his own lab bills.

Several years ago, Jesse Reynolds studied water resources at Cal and was a member of Students for Responsible Research, an ad hoc group that opposed growing corporate involvement in science R&D at the university. His concerns were quoted in a 2005 book by Jennifer Washburn, University Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education (Basic Books).

“Let’s say you’re a graduate student interested in sustainable agriculture or biological control or some other area that is not commercial,” Reynolds observed in Washburn’s book.  “My guess is you’re not going to come to Berkeley, or you’ll at least think twice about it.”

Today, Reynolds is pursuing his PhD at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Reached by email, he insists that the Novartis deal tarnished the reputation of the College of Natural Resources. “I recognize that potentially useful knowledge should not be sequestered away in an ivory tower, and that sometimes the power of the market should be harnessed in order to reap the benefits, but the Novartis-CNR agreement went too far,” he writes.

Other arrangements with the private sector have bolstered UC Berkeley’s resources and added to its R&D luster—or from the opposite perspective, sullied its reputation as a public institution devoted to the common good and equity in education. As private sector bucks flow into the University, they primarily are nourishing a narrow range of fields: mainly Big Agriculture, biotech and molecular engineering. For everybody else, from anthropology to sustainable agriculture, the cupboard remains decidedly bare.

Which is what is leading some researchers to consider whether crowdfunding could improve their prospects.

Top on Indiegogo’s R&D list is iCancer, a campaign that focused on a genetically altered virus programmed to attack cancer cells, particularly pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer cells—the variety that killed Steve Jobs. Researchers Magnus Essand and Justyna Leja developed the tumor-fighting microbe at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, but they lacked the money to launch clinical trials. Because their bug didn’t have a patent, biotech companies weren’t interest in fronting the cash—there wasn’t any profit in it.

“That’s when we were contacted by Alexander Masters (a writer at London’s The Guardian),” Essand explains. “He heard about our research, and had a friend with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer. He was also familiar with crowdfunding, so he helped us set up the campaign with Indiegogo.”

The campaign went, so to speak, viral, and raised about $300 thousand. That drew the attention of oilman Vince Hamilton, who donated more than $2 million to produce the microbe in quantity at Baylor University, obtain certification for testing from Swedish regulators, and conduct clinical trials.

Essen is gratified by his crowdfunding experience, but doesn’t necessarily think it is a default alternative for scientists who can’t obtain government grants or large corporate endowments. “I think it’s a viable option, but within limits,” he said. “The difficulty of running a campaign shouldn’t be underestimated—you need a lot of publicity, and generating publicity isn’t necessarily a skill that most scientists have. You’re going to need help, like we had help, with (Alexander Masters).”

You also need the right opportunity—specifically, a project that resonates with the international social media community.

“In our case, working on a cure for cancer, especially cancers that included the type that killed Steve Jobs, generated a lot of interest,” Essen says. “That was central to the response we got. Other projects may not have such broad appeal, even though they may be equally important.”

Also any scientific project that is crowdfunded is not peer reviewed—as are grants from the National Institute of Health or other large foundations—and this can hobble acceptance of the research in the scientific community. “We need to find a way to address that,” Essen acknowledges.

But if some view crowdfunding with reservations, other researchers are more bullish. Jessica Richman, the co-founder and CEO of uBiome, thinks crowdfunding is a game changer. Her company, which offers detailed “microbiome” analyses (genetic blueprints of the microbes colonizing clients’ bodies), raised $350 thousand on Indiegogo.

“We thought we could raise around $100 thousand, so we were really happy with the response we got,” Richman said.  “At this point, the greatest value of crowdfunding for us is proof of concept. We’ve demonstrated there’s interest in our service, that there’s a need for it. And that should allow us to raise greater operational capital from other sources.”

But Richman also feels that crowfunding could prove a doughty competitor to corporate support over the long term. As social media expands, crowdfunding’s power could scale up exponentially:  Anyone with access to a cell phone anywhere on the planet would be a potential investor.

“A tremendous amount of R&D ultimately involves the public interest, and the public wants to be involved in these decisions,” she says. “But until now, they had no access. Now they do. What really excites me is the potential this has for research involving underfunded academic departments. Take archaeology. Funding is very often hard to come by for archaeological research, but the public is enthralled by it. What if you could support an important dig instead of just passively watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel? If a campaign along these lines was properly presented and publicized, I think the response would be huge.”

For her part, Indiegogo founder Ringelmann thinks crowdfunding has the potential to wholly disrupt not just R&D funding protocols, but civil society itself.  “It’s gaining momentum because it allows people to identify and support the issues and programs that engage them,” she says. “The university could help with that—say, with matching funds for projects that attract $100 thousand or more through crowdfunding.” 

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