Monthly Archives: August 2014

The knowledge economy needs investment in brainfrastructure

This week has seen me taking my rapidly evolving personality cult on the road to Canberra and Sydney, ostensibly to sell Crowd funding for academic research.

This was after a kind invitation from Julie Preston (@julzpreston) , on behalf of NECTAR at ANU, a ‘grass roots’ group formed by the Early and Mid Career academics. I see myself as part of this group, who are increasingly disenfranchised by the current ultra competitive grant system, which is skewed to cement the position of the elite of Australian Ponzidemia (detailed in a recent blog post by Adam Micolich aka @ad_mico)

I asked Julie to book my return flight two days later than needed to attend the Crowd Funding workshop, as I wished to spend time in Canberra engaging with Politicians and Public Servants. This was at the request of Honourable Richard Marles MP, federal member for Corio. Amelia from Richard’s team managed to set up meetings with both Parliamentary Friends of Science representatives (Richard himself and the Honourable Karen Andrews MP, federal member for the Gold Coast)

Unfortunately, due to a holiday absence, I couldn’t see the woman who is the contact for STA (the lobby group for Science and Technology in Australia….whose efforts could do with more galvanising right now, IMHO!) but did get to catch up with my local MP, the Honourable Sarah Henderson, of Corangamite.

Sarah had been for an extended visit to my lab at the Deakin Medical School at Waurn Ponds the week before, during National Science Week, to hear about my research on the local endemic and emerging infectious disease, Mycobacteria ulcerans. I told her then that all my research was supported by local philanthropists, crowd funding and internal University funding (which is generous in my Dept versus stories I hear from sundry colleagues).

When we met again in Canberra on Wednesday, we spoke of her plans to try and secure funding for the Geelong region and how she saw the transition to a ‘smart’ economy as imperative for her constituency. Sarah is aware she is preaching to the converted on this, as I also push the ‘Smart Geelong’ barrow, purely out of self interest (and for the future job prospects of the students I teach).

During our conversation on the upcoming announcements for public-private partnership schemes to be soon launched for investing in ‘smart’ infrastructure by the current government, there came an opportunity to mention that I was currently the beneficiary of such infrastructure. As I am in the middle of designing my new lab to be opened opposite the Hospital in Central Geelong, paid for with a Regional Development grant.

I also mentioned that while it will be fabulous to have a shiny new lab….I may be unable to do much research inside it, due to the current situation for funding ‘people and projects’ in Australian Science. I re-stated the point made in this recent Fairfax Editorial, that investing in people to DO science is a form of infrastructure funding. Sarah agreed in principle to this concept, but lamented her junior minister status and said ‘you may have to talk to the Prime Minister about that’.

But I think this #brainfrastructure concept is an important one, and all the evidence on the financial return on investment in a Knowledge Economy model is well defined. Here’s hoping that my next trip to Canberra gets me the meeting proposed by Karen Andrews, with Greg Gilbert, the Senior Science advisor to Ian Macfarlane’s Dept of Industry.

If I can sell medical maggots to sheep farmers in a Crowd funding project, perhaps I may have a stab at selling the #brainfrastructure concept to the Department responsible for driving the productivity of the Australian economy?

And here’s a picture of me wishing this wasn’t just a pipe dream of a delusional ‘Pollyanna’ scientist….

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Interview transcript given to Nayanah Siva, to be prepared for the Lancet.

N: I understand you have used crowdfunding to raise funds for your research, could you tell me a bit about the research projects you are working on and how much you raised for these through your campaigns?

M: I have run two crowd funding campaigns in the past 18 months or so, and was one of the first ‘beta’ testers for the Pozible-Deakin ‘Research my World’ partnership, an initiative by Professor of Media Studies, Deb Verhoeven, at my university (which has only just entered the top 500 rankings, and is not the equivalent of a ‘red brick’ university [group of Eight on Oz] per say!)

My first campaign focused on a local endemic disease, skin ulcers caused by a flesh eating mycobacterium (M. ulcerans) My colleague (Dr Michelle Harvey, a Forensic Entomologist) and I proposed a pilot clinical study to use sterile medical maggots instead of expensive plastic surgery to debride (remove the necrotic flesh) of these wounds. We offered paintings done by the ‘Mighty’ Maggots as rewards to our donors. (No maggots were harmed in the creation of such masterpieces!) We successfully funded this study to the tune of $10,000 AUD. We are still trying to source ‘extract of maggot’ so we can test for pre-existing maggot allergy in the patients (at the request of the Human research ethics committee) and hope to start recruiting on this trial soon.

Because this disease is local to a small Geographic area (near my home) I ran a campaign that had many community engagement aspects (stalls at local markets, school visits, Rotary Club talks). I had also concurrently applied for small philanthropic grants from Local Community Foundations, which were also successful, perhaps due to the local media interest in our campaign, here in Geelong (a Regional Town in Victoria, Australia), and along with some substantial private donations, meant that I garnered a total of almost $55,000 AUD for this research.

My Second (recent) campaign, focused on the issue of the growing threat of Antimicrobial resistance in bacteria. It was called ‘Hips 4 Hipsters’ and the premise was that my current undergraduate students, may be facing a world without antibiotics that work, when they are ready for hip replacement surgery when elderly, given the current rise in antimicrobial resistance. Ironically, I noted that after I started this campaign, the British ran the Longitudinal prize, which was won by the same emerging health issue. I managed to raise $12,400 AUD on this campaign, but some of my supporters from the Australian Science Establishment have offered ongoing support for obtaining ‘traditional grants’ on this topic, so again, the ‘ripple’ effect of the impact of a campaign can be hard to quantify, as it increases exposure of ECRs to the wider scientific community.

I did no ‘real life’ community engagement on this second campaign and ran it entirely on one social media platform (Twitter) whilst blogging about my experiences in real time, (Drmelthomson.wordpress.com) as to provide a reflective record of my journey, for those who may follow behind. Dr Ben McNeil from Thinkable was one of the earliest supporters of my efforts in both my campaigns and I am now mentoring Dr Martin Rees in his Thinkable campaign. (He was recently mistaken by a Melbourne newspaper as Baron Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal!)

N: Could you also tell me a little about what type of people/groups were sponsoring you, colleagues, the general public, etc?

M: In my first campaign, I actually had quite a few friends, family and colleagues (even a couple of students!) pledge, but the most engaged group in the concept of using ‘mighty maggots’ was retired Sheep farmers, who were glad that maggots were doing something useful, instead of eating the rear end of their sheep! (Fly strike is a major agricultural issue in Australia)

In my second campaign, I had a ready made legion of fans of my science communication activities via Twitter, which I added to during the 45 day Campaign, by spending a week on a Rotation Twitter account (@RealScientists) to amplify the ‘signal’ of my message. I also had some local Australian ‘super tweeters’ who decided to retweet my campaign to large number of followers on several occasions and these people probably clinched the success of ‘Hips 4 Hipsters’

N: Why did you decide to raise funds through this platform for your research?

M: I was offered the opportunity by my University, and as an ECR who had not yet been successful at securing traditional funding, I realised that I had nothing to lose and had the perfect ‘attention grabbing’ project (Maggots tend to engender morbid fascination).

I decided to do it again, as I need to fund a new project with a ‘bench to bedside’ focus, so could communicate about the research process, leading to the development of drug therapies (and why ‘Big Pharma’ was ignoring antimicrobial R&D!)

N: Have government cuts in science funding affected you?

M: Yes, indirectly, as the usual economic levers of ‘supply and demand’ have increased the competition for traditional research grants in Australia, and hence have skewed the metrics to favour the small elite, who have been supported by the existing system for many years (and hence have the track record to show for it!) And as I spent 12 of my training years in the UK, I have many helpful local mentors, but no ‘Patrons’ willing to support my grants by adding their competitive track records to my applications.

N: Are you hopeful that crowdfunding will be a successful method of raising funding for young researchers.

M: I think there is a role to play for crowd funding as a model, in conjunction with other grant funding schemes. It allows ECRs to raise their profile within the community and gives them a platform on which the interested parties can ‘adopt a boffin’ directly for a particular disease, by making a small (or not so small!) donation. My average donation was around $70 AUD range $2-$1000 AUD. The amounts achievable are very low compared to the cost of conducting medical research, so it is unlikely that this method will be adopted as a ‘replacement’ for traditional grant schemes. But the level of community engagement and possible ‘ripple’ effects, cannot be quantified.

N: Do you have any concerns about crowdfunding for scientific research?

M: Many people are concerned that the current government will stop funding some aspects of scientific research and replace it with such campaigns. (A recent example was the Climate Change Council in Australia, who was at odds with the current political milieux and hence had funding removed, only to run a highly successful crowd funding campaign to continue it’s work.)

I also received negative feedback from many disgruntled tax payers, who quite rightly asked ‘Don’t my taxes already pay for medical research?’ And hence were offended to be asked to contribute out of their after tax income, for such things. And as the new $7 co payment was introduced to ostensibly pay for a ‘Medical Research Future Fund’ during my last campaign, I was surprised I was successful in that climate.

People also wonder about crowd funding ‘Fatigue’ and it losing it’s appeal as the market becomes flooded with platforms and projects. Time will tell.

N: Is there anything else you would like to highlight?

M: As someone who is seen as a ‘trail blazer’ in this field in Australia, I would like to report several ECRs from highly successful Medical Research Institutes have told me stories of when they approached their superiors to get permission to run crowd funding campaigns. Many were not sanctioned to run these campaigns, for fear of damaging existing philanthropic relationships. And so encourage their researchers to engage only via carefully scripted media interactions, with the non scientist communications officers in control. I find it sad that these institutes are not prepared to trust their own innovative scientific staff to communicate their message directly to the public, as the main benefit of these interactions (as I see it) is the unfiltered ‘access to boffins’ without the veneer of ‘spin’. These interactions are genuine and allow the flawed and human process of research that happens in these Ivory towers, to be communicated directly. (Ie it takes a long time and has many hurdles!)

Actual Article here

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