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San Diego Scientists Experiment With Crowd Funding

The Scripps Research Institute set up this crowd-funding page to support Erica Ollmann Saphire's Ebola research, Oct. 21, 2014.
Crowdrise/The Scripps Research Institute
The Scripps Research Institute set up this crowd-funding page to support Erica Ollmann Saphire's Ebola research, Oct. 21, 2014.
San Diego Scientists Experiment With Crowd Funding
San Diego scientists are looking at crowd funding as a way to raise money for scientific research.

Crowd funding has become a tried-and-true way to finance a certain type of dream. If you dream of translating Moby Dick into emoji, founding a pizza museum, or making $55,000 worth of potato salad, you can pay for that dream by collecting small donations from lots of online contributors.

But what if you dream of finding a cure for deadly diseases? Some scientists are starting to have success with crowd funding, but others find it an awkward fit for basic research.

At the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Erica Ollmann Saphire is trying to pin down antibodies best suited to ward off the Ebola virus. Noisy equipment hums throughout her lab, but she says these machines can't handle her current workload.

"The most important thing we need is a faster automated instrument called an FPLC," Saphire said. "It's the most important workhorse in the lab."

Work in this lab helped formulate ZMapp, an experimental cocktail of antibodies given to a handful of Ebola patients in the current outbreak. To understand how the virus is mutating, Saphire says she needs new equipment, and she needs it soon.

"If we can understand how the virus is changing, we know what antibodies it's mutating away from," she explained. "We can understand if something like ZMapp is going to continue to work. Or, if the virus continues to mutate and escape, if we need to whip out something like Plan-B Mapp."

To raise money for this expensive new equipment, Saphire decided to try an experiment in crowd funding. She set up a site where anyone can pitch in toward her goal of $100,000. As of Tuesday, Oct. 21 Saphire had raised $63,770 toward her six-figure goal.

Saphire says she went straight to the public because the federal agencies that provide the bulk of her funding aren't designed to help researchers in a pinch.

"I could write an equipment grant. But that would take a year or a year and a half for the equipment to come, if the grant were successful. And I don't have a year or a year and a half. We need to get this solved as soon as possible."

Lately, people have been asking Saphire how they could help fight Ebola. She didn't have a clear answer until she could point them to her crowd-funding page.

"Frankly there's not much the average person can do," she said. "They can't stop people from dying in Africa. They can't stop the virus from mutating. What they can do is support a scientist or a doctor on the front lines trying to do something about it."

The Ebola virus has been making headlines for months. Not every researcher has that advantage. Many work in obscure fields, on topics that never make the front-page. Could crowd funding ever work for them?

Margot Wohl is a second-year neuroscience doctorate student at UC San Diego just starting out her career.

"I'm going to be trying to understand how the brain represents sensory stimuli, and how those representations can change based on context, attention, other motivational factors," Wohl said. She'll focus on how songbirds process sound. It's fascinating, but it's no Ebola. 

"It is becoming harder to get grants," she said. "So in the near future, I may have to think about different ways, creative ways that I can go about getting money to do the research I'm passionate about."

Wohl recently wrote a skeptical take on crowd funding for NeuWrite San Diego, the local chapter of a neuroscience blog network.

Most crowd-funding projects offer rewards that are immediate and obvious. You fund someone's short film, and one day you get to watch it. You fund someone's fashion project, and eventually you get to wear the clothes.

Wohl argues science doesn't work that way.

"In general the outcome of it—the product—is knowledge," she said. "And that's not a very tangible product."

And Wohl worries about quality control. Federal agencies have experts reviewing grant applications; they're supposed to spot projects worth funding and filter out projects that aren't scientifically solid.

With crowd funding anyone can appeal to the public without much detail.

"Some of the crowd-funding websites aren't really requiring that much out of the fundraisers," said Wohl. "They're not requiring them to detail their methods in very specific detail. And so the accountability isn't really there."

However, Wohl also finds reasons to be optimistic. Researchers working on difficult, potentially hard-to-grasp projects have found ways to make crowd funding work for them. She cites OpenWorm, a project trying to build a computer simulation of the C. elegans worm. They recently raised over $120,000 on KickStarter.

It's all new to Erica Ollmann Saphire. She hopes the public can spot crackpots, and she hopes they'll be as willing to fund basic research as they've been with Ebola.

"The hope is that people think life-saving research is important," she said. "You know, more important than potato salad."