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Québec's Science & Policy Issues

How to pay for science?

FundingImagine that you are heading up your own business.  You have a great idea for a product.  But that’s all it is right now.  An idea.  You need staff.  You’re going to need to make your product.  You’re going to need to market it and explain and tell people why your product is awesome and why they should care!  And for all this, you’re going to need money.  Where are you going to get your moneyfrom?  If you’re independently wealthy, that’s great and convenient.  For the rest of us, we’re going to need to obtain our funding some other way.  You could apply for grants that are often specific to your type of business.  Or more recently, crowdfunding through sites like Kickstarter.  You could find Angel Investor (though that might require eventually giving up some control over your company).  Or you could get a loan from a bank. 

For scientists, similar questions are often asked.  In fact, many scientists are spending more and more of their time applying and soliciting for funding rather than performing the research itself.  Scientific research costs a lot of money.  There are buildings to build, fancy machines to purchase, essential reagents and equipment that aren’t free (or even cheap).  Oh yeah, and those pesky scientists who all want wages…  How to pay for all of this?

Historically, scientists, like artists, were either self-funded or the beneficiaries of patronage.  Patrons could range from minor nobility to Emperors and Popes, and not only provided financial backing, but often acted as a seal of credibility.  Galileo was funded by affluent individuals, while Darwin was supported by both his own income and with money from the government.  Today, Canadian scientists are mostly likely to be funded by a mix of government-funded research councils (such as the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), charities (Terry Fox Foundation, Canadian Cancer Society), and/or industry (collaborations with major companies).  Philanthropy from wealthy individuals still exists in some places (the US in particular), but for the most part, researchers rely on public funding.

In general, many believe that it is the role of the government to fund basic research, since this is the work that underpins many innovative technological advances, but which has little immediate applicable value.  Moreover, since it is thought that private companies would invest more in applied research (where there is more potential for reward).  However, as reported by Cell last summer (Biology Boom Goes Bust), the increase in government funding for biomedical research is now declining in many of the English-speaking research nations (Canada, United States, Australia).    However, many pharmaceutical companies have announced massive layoffs in the last year, in Australia, Canada, and the UK, and many of these companies have been restructuring their research and development, by performing less of it in-house and collaborating more with academic institutions.  Indeed, in the past 30 years, government funding for domestic research and development in the US has been surpassed by funding from industry (Atlantis report).

The recent Canadian budget provided some positive news via the creation of a Canadian First Research Excellence Fund.  This fund will have $1.5 billion dollars “to help Canadian post-secondary institutions excel globally in research areas that create long-term economic advantages for Canada”.  However, with emphasis on creating economic advantages, in is unclear at this point if this is intended to promote collaborations with industry.

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Crowdsourcing has gained more attention as a means to fund smaller business and arts projects.  Yet, scientists are beginning to utilize crowd funding as well.  Websites such as Petridish, Experiment, SciFundChallenge provide forums for scientists to raise money for their projects.   As more grant applications (to traditional sources of funding) are rejected than accepted, there are numerous projects (and scientists) who fall through the funding cracks.  Crowdfunding has great potential to fill this niche.  As many crowdfunding projects are on a smaller scale, crowdfunding can also be utilized to supplement existing studies or purchase specific software or equipment.  One of the caveats of crowd funding is that it is not a peer-reviewed process.  And therefore it would be possible for one to raise money for unethical projects or just plain bad science.  However, as crowdfunding grows, the addition of peer-review may provide some legitimacy and establish this as another source of scientific funding.

Currently, crowdfunding is not a perfect system and won’t entirely replace some of the more traditional sources of funding.  But, if this means of funding can support some science, and also engage the public research, then this is a good thing.  As the funding structure changes it will be interesting to see how these new “systems” impact innovation and productivity.

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