Since writing about a pharmacology crowdfund, which raised money to look at localization of amphetamine inside neurons (and which got funded!), I have received emails asking me to "advertise" other crowdfunds. I decided to use this latest opportunity to ask the willing scientists some questions about how, exactly, they came across crowdfunding, whether it was working for them, and what they planned to do with it.
So today I would like to talk up the latest crowdfund: Computer-based behavioral interventions for autism. It's a really interesting idea. Elizabeth Whyte and her colleagues have been working on a "game" to help people with autism develop their skills in making eye contact, recognizing faces, and understanding emotional expressions. They've been using little figures called "Greebles", and looking at the impact in children with autism. In order to help kids work with the Greebles, the writers of this study want to make Greebles more like a game, making it more interesting to "play" with and learn from.
The Penn State lab where this study is based wants to use the crowdfunding to help them finish up the first phase of their study (measuring the impact of the Greebles on how well people with autism process faces), and to move on to the second phase of developing the game. The study authors have a lot of experience in fMRI and the lead author also has a lot of experience in gaming (she plays World of Warcraft), which she hopes to apply to making the Greebles a popular intervention for people with autism.
And the author of the study (Elizabeth Whyte), and another study looking at protein markers for autism (Alisa Woods) were kind enough to answer some of my questions about crowdfunding! Check below the fold to learn all about it.
1. What first attracted you to the idea of crowdfunding your research?
Elizabeth: I have seen a trend in recent years of many video game companies being successful at developing their products using crowdfunding. When my lab’s grant applications were rejected this summer, I knew I was going to have to be more creative if I wanted to succeed at doing my science. If gamers were doing it, then why couldn’t we?
Alisa: It is very hard for us to earn research for our autism work because we are a small, technical college and grant reviewers have rejected our grants saying we can't do biomedical research. We know that we can so we will use any means necessary. My husband (collaborator) and I have a son with autism and we know that early diagnosis is critical for effective treatment. We therefore have a personal investment to see the project through and we will do it however we can.
2. Do you feel that crowdfunding is particularly well suited to your particular project, and if so, why?
Elizabeth: When we decided that the next direction for our project would be developing a game for individuals with autism, I decided that our project was really suited for crowdfunding. I knew our educational game would be appealing to gamers who were already familiar with this funding method. In addition, many of the parents we talk to are looking for ways to be part of research and hear about what we are doing. In #Scifund, the project is as much about outreach and making our science accessible to people as it is about earning money for our projects.
3. $10,000, in the scientific world...isn't really a lot of money. What are you going to do about salary? Equipment? Will the university take overhead?
Alisa: We are trying to get $5,500 that will help us collect data to get more grants. There is no expectation that we will use this for salary. We need the seed money for data to write more grants. The University will not take overhead.
Elizabeth: Right now, the majority of my salary comes from teaching and Penn State. The Scifund projects aren’t really crowdfunding to pay our salary, so crowdfunding isn’t a good way to be the permanent funding source for a lab. We are essentially using the money we get to provide a funding bridge between grants. Our main Autism research grant will end before we’ve been able to secure long-term funding for the lab. The crowdfunding method works better if your needs are small, so they will usually work best for small projects and equipment needs.
4. Do you think that crowdfunding science will become more popular? Why?
Elizabeth: I don’t think that crowdfunding will ever take the place of other funding methods. However, a lot of universities are looking to find ways to tap into this resource. One thing I’ve heard people talk about is being able to take patents off the shelf and turn them into products. That would be something very easy for universities to do. However, crowdfunding requires a “crowd” so to speak. You need to have a group of supporters willing to donate. It is easier for artists, song writers, and game companies to build fans – so, it’s more sustainable for them than it is for scientists. In addition, running a crowdfunding campaign (especially for larger donation amounts) is very time consuming even after you post it up on the website.
Alisa: Not really. It is no substitute for grants. It is difficult, the amounts are small. Most scientists don't have the communication skills to crowd fund or the time to put the multi-media presentation together.
5. When you submit grants to the NIH, there's usually expert peer review on a study section to determine if the grant gets funding. Do you have anything like that for your project? How do you think this sort of thing will be managed for crowdfunding in the future? Do you think something like prior peer scientist review and approval would be a good thing to have? Why?
Elisabeth: This is one point that I really like about the #Scifund Challenge model. To participate in #Scifund, we had to submit our project idea in advance. After being added to the #Scifund group, we had to post our proposals up on a website two weeks in advance of the projects going live. Around 35 research labs launched our projects together after working together on the proposals. During this process, we provided feedback on the other proposals and videos. While we come from very different backgrounds, providing project feedback was very important. Also, crowdfunding changes what it means to have peer review. In this case, in addition to Scifund members reviewing the project, my “peers” are also every person who decides if they want to fund me or not. If you write a proposal that isn’t accessible to the public and you can’t communicate your proposal well, you don’t get money.
6. Will you be doing "open science" with this project? How will you give back to the funders?
Alisa: Yes. We have a Facebook page where will continuously post our findings as soon as they are accepted for publication. We do share a certain amount of unpublished data, although there is a limit to that because if we disclose all our findings that could be risky.
Elisabeth: I will be communicating our science as best we can to the public by posting updates on our lab’s #Scifund Challenge blog. In addition, everyone who donates $25 or more is able to receive project newsletters (1 a semester for three semesters) to keep them updated on how we use the money and our progress
Now, on to the SCIENCE:
1. For Elizabeth: I think it's very cool that you'll be making this intervention into more of a "game". Are you all developing that yourself? Has it already been done? What is the "game" like? Will you be doing online beta testing?
Elisabeth: Our lab has two interventions. The first non-game intervention has already been completed and most of the intervention participants have completed the intervention sessions. The second intervention, our “game” is still in the idea development phase and we don’t have a current working game yet. The point of our crowdfunding was to bridge the funding gap between the two projects while we work on securing larger grant funding for building the “game”. We are still working out the details of who is going to build the game (whether we’ll do it internally within the university or get help from another game company). I have a few promising leads
3. For Alisa: Do you have specific biomarkers you are interested in?
Alisa: My group is looking for biomarkers (Cholesterol-associated proteins, complement, markers of oxidative stress and markers of nervous system development.) using mass spectrometry with the aim to develop a diagnostic test. However, there are many other uses for biomarkers.
4. For Elizabeth: Have you looked at whether the Greeble intervention improves social interaction? The video wasn't clear on this.
Elizabeth: We are still working on finishing the data collection and analysis for the Greeble intervention, so I wanted to be cautious in my implications until after we've published some of the data.
1. Elizabeth: Alliance or Horde? 🙂
Elizabeth: My characters are mostly Alliance, though I’ve dabbled horde-side some, I play on the faction and servers where my friends and family are. My husband and mother are both in my World of Warcraft guild group. I actually like Wold of Warcraft (WOW) better than console games because WOW lets players progress their own skill level.
2. How long did it take you to develop the video and site for crowdfunding? The same or more than a grant application?
Alisa: Two weeks. Probably the same but I think it would be faster if we had to do it a second time because we had no knowledge of how to make a video. The text in the site was modified from grants so that did not take as much time.
Elizabeth: The video and text for the crowdfunding site took as much time as writing a grant. However, unlike a grant, when you hit “post”, your work doesn’t end. Every donor we get is someone that we connected with through a campaign of spreading the word. In this sense, crowdfunding is more time consuming than grant writing because you have to connect with the individuals who may want to know about our projects. If you just write a great proposal and post it up, but spend no time telling people about it, you get no money. However, the reward that I’ve gotten through doing this crowdfunding campaign is that I have been able to talk to individual parents of children with autism, adults with autism themselves, and other scientists interested in what I’m doing. Being able to tell the world around me about my science has made the time investment more rewarding than I ever imagined.
Thanks very much to Elizabeth and Alisa for answering my questions, and I'm sure they'll take more questions in the comments! And if you think their projects look good, please give them a boost and help them get funded!