Lighting the way towards the future of science funding

Image Credit: KaCey97007 (via Flikr)

Image Credit: KaCey97007 (via Flikr)

The generally accepted scientific method goes something like this: a group of scientists get together and come up with a theory, they make predictions based on this theory, and then set up an experiment to test the theory. In order to get the experiment done, funding needs to be provided. Without having any money supporting it, it doesn’t happen. At least, that is how it’s been since the 1930’s, but this status quo may be changing.

In the UK science has been funded by industry, by the European Research Councils (ERC) and by Research Councils UK (RCUK) , which includes EPSRC, BBSRC, MRC, STFC etc. These funding bodies are allocated a certain amount of money by the government, which they then distribute. In order for a scientist to get some of this money, they need to apply for it. This process is highly competitive, particularly in the current climate where there is less money to go around.

This might all be changing.

There has been a lot of talk recently about a new project in California: the Glowing Plant Project. It is the goal of a group of DIY Biologists to create a plant that glows in the dark. Using synthetic biology, the scientists are going to insert two genes, one called luciferase (which makes fireflies glow), and another called luciferin (needed to make luciferase function), into the DNA of a plant to hopefully produce a plant that glows.

The project has admirable goals: if these plants can be grown, they could replace our street lamps, lighting our way through the dark using renewable energy. Put sunlight in, and get glowing plants out.

In order to fund this ambitious project, the group have used Kickstarter, which relies on the public to fund their project. In return for funding, the public will receive the seeds of the plant when they become available.

On the eve of the closure for funding, the group – led by technical entrepreneur Mr Antony Evans – has raised over 7 times the amount it originally intended to raise, more than $466,000. This is impressive, particularly considering the project was only initiated on the 23rd of April this year. And in the first 24 hours they raised $40k. This is shows a phenomenal amount of support for this type of initiative.

But with all the oomph behind the project, there are those that don’t think this project will work. Even the Kickstarter project page says “we hope to have a plant which you can visibly see in the dark (like glow in the dark paint), but don’t expect to replace your light bulbs with version 1.0”. During a conversation in the pub, someone said that you would need a plant almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower. The group itself calculated that (although with many assumptions) a plant would need to cover a ground area of 10meters (nearly 33feet) by 10meters, just to be able to provide as much light as a street lamp.

However, to get a plant to glow is only one of the aims this project has. The other part is more controversial: to increase the publicity for do-it-yourself synthetic biology and to “inspire others to create new living things”. Basically, to get those who are curious and interested to think outside of the box. Research doesn’t have to happen within labs anymore, garage biologists, DIY biologists and BioHacker groups are appearing all over the world.

So what makes this an interesting project is that it is publicly funded. This shows public support, they have faith in it. So does that mean they have faith in synthetic biology? And in DIY biologists?

Effectively, this is a project that is aiming to genetically modify the genes of a plant. GM hasn’t had the greatest amount of support from the public in the past. It wasn’t long ago that GM wheat was getting bad press, and now it doesn’t get much support. So why the change in attitude? What has made a GM averse public so supportive of genetically modified plants? What is different about this project? Perhaps it is because the plants are not intended for human consumption. Maybe it is the desirability of renewable energy, or even the somewhat fantastical idea of glowing plants illuminating our cities. Whatever the reason for the support, projects like this could change the way science is funded and conducted.

If qualified scientists can get public support by sidestepping the research funding councils in the US, could the same thing happen here? By going through a Kickstarter program, they have to ensure the proposed research is of interest to the public. It must also be transparent, open-source, and attractive. This way the public will directly see where their money is going, contrasting the ambiguity of funding councils using tax money to fund various projects.

Asking the public directly to fund their projects has other consequences. These scientists all of a sudden have a much larger responsibility of making sure they deliver. By promising those who have provided funding certain products there are high expectations that the investments will be fruitful. There is also a heightened sense of accountability to the people who have personally donated their money to support the project. Does this open the doors for all scientists to get their projects funded by the public, provided they are in the public interest?

I mentioned transparency earlier: by showing the public what the scientists are going to do with their money, the public will be more likely to trust them. But do they know what they are trusting them to do? Just because the science is on the web page, doesn’t mean the public will understand it. This raises more questions about knowledge. The Glowing Plants Project is being funded by the public, who don’t fully necessarily understand how synthetic biology works. This lack of understanding could allow scientists to exploit their generosity, encouraging donations to projects they don’t fully comprehend or agree with. Stephen Hilgartner described this particular issue well in his 1990 paper: the deficit model gives scientists the epistemological right to print money.

If such projects don’t deliver, the perception of science could be changed once more. It could cause a lack of faith in scientists who have made exciting, but possibly unrealistic claims in the attempt to gain funding. Though such funding processes seem appealing, funding bodies protect investments, sifting through unrealistic claims and only providing support for research which is likely to generate results. Without expert guidance there is a risk that money could be wasted on ideas that capture the publics imagination but are actually highly unrealistic.

Julie Gould is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College.


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