Neil deGrasse Tyson standing in front of a large logo

It may be increasingly important for successful scientists to have the charisma of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to get their work funded. Photo credit: John Roling

Girls and boys aspiring to be scientists imagine themselves peering into microscopes — not writing grant proposals to apply for NIH funding. But just as late night comedians and Hollywood writers discover that integrating product placements is crucial to their creative careers, scientists cannot ignore the question of how to pay for the labs, study participants, and research assistants that make their projects go.

As one of several “kickstarter for science” sites, Experiment offers a new way for scientists to pursue funding. Priceonomics previously wrote about the business side of Experiment, which allows anyone to help crowdfund science. Like engineers adapting to the idea of pitching an unrealized product to the public on Indiegogo, scientists raising money on Experiment and its peer sites are learning how to find high quality banner images and solicit press. 

The researchers seeking crowdfunded dollars are not all the candidates you’d expect to turn to a new, alternative funding mechanism. Many proposals on Experiment come from well-pedigreed PhD candidates — an underfunded group that founders Cindy Wu and Denny Luan wanted to help after they found they were too junior to raise funding for a promising idea through established channels as University of Washington students. Others are like Manuela Martins-Green, a full professor who has published some 90 papers.

One consequence of the recession has been slashed budgets at the foundations that dole out government money for basic research. Yet more researchers chase those dwindling grant funds every year. “Since 2010, 80% of principal investigators spend more time writing grant proposals and 67% are struggling with less funding,” Experiment’s site reads. “‘Big science’ has become synonymous with ‘budget cuts’.” Experiment wants to help replace those research dollars and break the funding bottleneck.

The kickstarter for science approach is still a hypothesis intent on proving itself. But the wealthy counterparts of Experiment’s micro-philanthropists have already made a major impact. “Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science,” reads a March 2014 New York Times feature that describes projects like Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’ medical foundation, which has supported the research of hundreds of biologists and three Nobel Prize winners. With research dollars disappearing, an increasing number of researchers are looking to wealthy philanthropists as patrons. 

If current trends continue, American scientists will spend much more time hustling for funding outside the familiar, bureaucratic confines of public foundations.

Pay to Play

Scientists have always had to contend with the financial side of their pursuit. Many excellent researchers have found that moving up the ranks entails spending less time in the lab and more time writing grant proposals. MacArthur Fellowships, $625,000 “genius grants,” are intended to give academics, researchers, and other creative individuals the no-strings-attached funding they need to work immune from grant conditions or market forces.

But several trends are pushing the money closer to researchers’ minds. Chief among them: professors rely on grant money not just to fund research but to pay an increasing share of their own salaries.

When a university professor receives funding from a public foundation like the National Science Foundation, the funding covers research expenses as well as a fraction of his or her salary. The idea is to compensate the university for the time faculty members spend undertaking research that benefits the national interest. 

In practice, this means that universities can support an expanding bullpen of prestigious faculty at little cost by pushing professors to fund their own salaries through a heavy research agenda. Just in case tenure is not incentive enough, many universities have “incentive programs” that offer extra salary to faculty that bring in external funding to cover a substantial portion of their salary. (Sometimes the incentive is extra research funding.) At research universities, it’s common practice to require that faculty cover a certain percentage of their own salary through research grants. Although public figures are hard to find, a range from 30% to over 60% seems to be the norm. 

A professor who fails to bring enough grant money into the department could find him or herself out of a job. An article in The Nation reported on the recent firings of Carole Vance and Kim Hopper, two popular professors at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health noted for their commitment to policy work outside of academia. The reporter writes:

Like many schools of public health, Mailman operates on a “soft money” model, which means that professors are expected to fund much of their salaries through grants… Recently, the amount expected has increased—from somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of their salaries to as much as 80 percent—and professors say that it’s become a hard rule, with less room for the cross-subsidization of those who devote themselves to teaching or whose research isn’t attractive to outside funders.

The financial incentive to push professors to fund themselves through research grants helps explain the prioritization of research over teaching and public engagement. It also means that grant funding is not just the difference between modernizing a lab or supporting another graduate student; it is a quota that professors must hit. With that quota increasing, faculty are more vulnerable to ebbs in the flow of research dollars.

From Public to Private

News about research funding is distinctly gloomy.

From the early to mid 2000s through the beginning of the recession, research budgets were healthy. NIH funding increased from $17.8 billion in 2000 to $29.2 billion in 2007 thanks to political support for science and stimulus money.

Public research dollars have since flatlined, with the sequester leading to significant cuts that the 2014 budget has not restored. “Spending on basic research has fallen by roughly a quarter, to $30 billion last year, one of the sharpest declines ever,” the Times wrote last month. To continue with the NIH example, its 2013 budget is still $4.5 billion higher than it was in 2000 in inflation adjusted dollars, but it is $4.8 billion less than it was in 2005.

Reporting on the impact of sequester cuts, Sam Stein gives the example of Dr. Anindya Dutta’s research on strands of microRNA with potential to improve health outcomes of muscular dystrophy patients. The NIH gave Dutta $1.3 million in funding in 2007, ranking his research in the top 2% of most promising proposals. Dutta applied for the same amount of funding in 2012, ranking in the top 18%. But as Stein writes:

In years past that score may have been good enough, but in the age of sequestration, NIH is supporting a much smaller pool of applicants. Late last month he was told that there would be no funding. 

Another elite researcher described in the article mulled moving to China to access more reliable funding. A series of talking points from the Coalition for Life Sciences points out the danger of brain drain. With success rates of grant applications for junior researchers falling, a generation of promising young talent could be lost abroad or to other fields.

As the founders of Experiment express it, funding is a serious bottleneck. In the course of speaking with more than 100 scientists, co-founder Cindy Wu discovered that “just about every one of them had some bright idea sitting on the shelf.”

In this environment, billionaire philanthropists donating money for research do not complement government funding, they are filling holes and becoming a core part of the system — perhaps “privatizing American science,” as the Times put it. Although no one keeps records of philanthropic support for research budgets, the Times profile describes examples from Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s $500 million donation, which set up a brain science institute that helped inspire President Obama’s $100 million effort to “map the human brain,” to the $100 million investment in the Schmidt Ocean Institute by Google’s Eric Schmidt.

The article also describes and the center stage philanthropy is taking in fundraising strategies as scientists seek out a new, “cottage industry” of workshops on donor development. Nature has published articles on fundraising tactics for using crowdfunding sites and soliciting wealthy donors that includes pitching advice that entrepreneurs would find familiar.

The New Normal?

For many in the nonprofit world, it would be a dream to have institutions equivalent to the NIH that distribute billions of dollars in predictable cycles based on the opinion of topic experts. 

Instead, nonprofits’ reliance on wealthy philanthropists and networks of donors means fundraising dominates their thinking. Programming is hard to schedule among booms and busts in funding, staff waste hours figuring out how to bill their expenses according to the conditions of various grants, and charismatic leaders and glossy photos win funding over less loquacious directors and more technocratic approaches. When Teach for America began, founder Wendy Kopp spent much of her time pitching millionaires and corporations to secure the next month’s funding. It would be a shame if American scientists consistently faced the same dilemmas.

The pros and cons of private research funding are still becoming clear. Critics worry that philanthropy dollars will under fund basic research and prefer projects with clear applications; pursue trendy projects rather than solid science; and go overwhelmingly to high profile institutions and researchers. Advocates believe philanthropists may take risks that government won’t countenance and push for major projects where political will falters. It’s notable that one common critique — a focus on research with clear applications — contradicts praise philanthropists have received for pursuing riskier work. It’s still too early to predict the impact of this increased importance of private funding.

The public funding model of American science is far from over. Government funding still far surpasses private giving — the $30 billion that Bill Gates has donated through the Gates Foundation is equivalent to the funding doled out by the NIH each year — and budgets could rebound in stronger economic times. But the combined effect of universities demanding that professors fund their own salaries, cuts in public research funding, and the increasing number of researchers is making the funding landscape less secure. It’s pushing researchers to focus on pitching their work and looking widely for funds.

In a perfect world, crowdfunding and philanthropy would be strong complements to traditional sources of research funding. It would be a shame if they became the only game in town, turning scientists into salesmen.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google PlusTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.