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Researchers use crowdfunding to fund research projects

Imagem: FreepikResearch crowdfunding accounts for a significant volume of resources in the United States—digital platform Experiment, one of the most active research crowdfunding websites, has raised US$7.5 million from more than 40,000 backers since it was created in 2012, funding 722 projects across various fields. In Brazil, this funding model is more widespread in cultural spheres, but it is gradually being embraced by researchers. In November 2017, for example, ABC Federal University (UFABC) inaugurated the crowdfunded WikiLab at its São Bernardo campus. The laboratory is used by researchers and students, but it is also available to local entrepreneurs for the development of free software, such as applications focused on culture and human rights.

“The aim is to unite the world of free technologies with the field of human sciences,” said computer scientist Jerônimo Pellegrini, a professor at the UFABC Mathematics, Computing, and Cognition Center. The laboratory is 40 square meters (m²) and was built on university land using wood panels cut by computers, assembled without the use of any nails or screws. The crowdfunding project raised R$72,000—which was R$9,000 more than the target—from over 900 backers. The campaign was run on Catarse, a platform used primarily by artists hoping to release CDs or to create pieces of art.

In August, the first Brazilian crowdfunding platform dedicated to science was launched. Entropia Coletiva was created by programmer Frederico Reis, neuroscientist Patrícia Bado, and physicist Ivan José, all from Rio de Janeiro, and was supported by the Rio de Janeiro Research Foundation (FAPERJ). The website is already hosting four fundraising campaigns, one of which is led by researchers from the Alzheimer’s Research lab and the Neurodegenerative Diseases lab at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Their aim is to raise R$85,000 for research into treating Alzheimer’s with the drugs used to fight diabetes.

Crowdfunding can be a great financial resource for project owners, depending on the success of their campaign, of course. “We charge 18% of the total amount raised per project. Our fee includes the 5% payment processing charge and a contract with a digital marketing agency,” says Frederico Reis of Entropia Coletiva, which also offers a consulting service to help researchers publicize their campaigns. Experiment, meanwhile, charges 12%.

The Brazilians and the Americans have adopted different models. Entropia Coletiva is based on the concept of flexible funding, which allows the researcher to receive the amount raised even if the campaign has not reached its target. Experiment, however, uses an all-or-nothing model, only releasing the donated money if the researchers achieve their target amount. If not, the backers are reimbursed. “The all-or-nothing model encourages researchers to set realistic goals and reduces the risk of backers getting involved in projects that may not even get off the ground,” says co-founder Cindy Wu.

Vinícius Maracaja-Coutinho, a professor at Universidad Mayor’s Genomics and Bioinformatics Center in Santiago, Chile, preferred the flexible model when he launched science crowdfunding website Dodo in 2015, charging a fee of 10%. The initiative is part of Beagle Bioinformatics, a startup founded by Maracaja-Coutinho in 2012 after he completed his PhD at the University of São Paulo (USP). The platform was developed in Chile as part of a federal program to support innovation. “We received about US$60,000 from the Chilean government to create Dodo. So I moved my startup company to Chile,” he says.

Imagem: WIKILAB/UFABC The crowdfunding campaign to build WikiLab at UFABC raised R$72,000 from more than 900 backersImagem: WIKILAB/UFABC

At the moment, most Dodo projects are related to genetic sequencing. A group from the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB), for example, raised US$2,000 to sequence the genome of an insect called a cochineal. “Cochineal is used to produce a red dye commonly used in the food industry. But in 2015, an outbreak of these insects in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco destroyed palm plantations, impacting cattle production, for which the plant is used as feed,” explains Maracaja-Coutinho, who is part of the UFPB group. Researchers hope that sequencing its DNA will help to develop a biological pest control.

One of the first Brazilian scientific crowdfunding campaigns was run in 2013 by UFRJ researchers, who raised R$40,000 to map the genome of the golden mussel, an invasive species causing environmental problems in the country. Biologist Mauro Rebelo and his then PhD student Marcela Uliano used the funds to sequence the genome and are now preparing to publish the results. “The goal is to help create strategies for controlling the species,” says Rebelo, who is currently involved in a genome research initiative called the Genome Research Application Environment (GRAppE), which will also be crowdfunded.

Another notable example in Brazil is the Independent Environmental Impact Analysis Group (GIAIA), which has united researchers from various institutions to analyze the environmental impacts caused by the Samarco dam rupture in Mariana, Minas Gerais. Soon after the disaster in 2015, the group launched an internet campaign that raised R$90,000 from 1,473 donors. “We started as a Facebook page that now has 15,000 followers. This network helped share the campaign on the internet and mobilized donors,” says biologist Dante Pavan, a member of GIAIA. Of the total collected, about R$70,000 has already been spent on travel and materials for analyzing water and sediment from the Doce river basin (see Pesquisa FAPESP, issue No. 243).

Imagem: GIAIA Water is collected from the Doce river to be analyzed: funding was donated by the public in 2015 after the Samarco dam in Minas Gerais rupturedImagem: GIAIA

Entropia Coletiva’s Frederico Reis believes the environment in Brazil is more challenging than in countries like the United States, where crowdfunding takes advantage of the existing norm of companies and individuals donating to scientific institutions. “Another obstacle is that Brazilian researchers are not in the habit of seeking financial support from public sources,” Reis argues. For him, Brazil needs to foster a research culture that does not depend solely on government funding, especially in times of economic crisis and budget cuts. “This is a way of complementing traditional sources of capital, such as research funding agencies.”

Elsewhere around the world, there are many examples of scientific projects that have been made possible thanks to donations from the public. In 2015, more than 18,000 people contributed to a campaign on Experiment: a couple from Los Angeles, California, raised US$2.6 million to fund studies of Batten disease, a rare neurodegenerative disease that manifests in childhood, affecting vision and intellectual and motor skills. The couple have two daughters who suffer from the disease. Experiment was founded by researchers from the University of Washington, USA. “We believe the number of research funding sources needs to be increased and diversified,” says Cindy Wu.

Suzana Diniz, a PhD student at the Animal Biology Department of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), used Experiment to apply for research funding in 2016. She raised US$820 to conduct a study on the role of ultraviolet (UV) light in the way spiders decorate their webs. The money was used to buy materials and pay for field work. The objective was to study the effect of UV light reflection on the attraction of insects and the incidence of predators, such as birds. “We observed that in general, webs decorated to reflect ultraviolet light attract more insects than those that block UV light. But contrary to our expectations, UV-reflecting webs with X-shaped decorations attract fewer visually-guided insects, such as bees and flies,” explains Diniz, who released the preliminary results on Experiment.

Cindy Wu advocates the practice of publishing data while research is ongoing, because it lets backers know what has been achieved with the funds. “We also encourage the publication of informal reports on the research process,” she says. Wu explains that Experiment asks scientists to make it clear to the public that the results are partial and not yet peer-reviewed. The website does not accept every funding campaign—projects are reviewed and selected by a technical committee. The criteria include that the researcher must be linked to a scientific institution and the project must be endorsed by a colleague in the field. For Frederico Reis, the fact that crowdfunded projects do not undergo a rigorous selection process like they would at traditional support agencies does not mean that quality is not taken into account. “It is common for the research to result in a published paper, which is then subject to peer review,” says Reis. “But the primary filter is the donors themselves, who decide whether a topic is worthy of research or not,” he says.

Some research is only viable thanks to crowdfunding, such as neuroscientist Eduardo Schenberg’s study on how MDMA, the psychoactive ingredient in ecstasy, can be used to  treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder—a controversial area of research. “The research attracts little interest from the Brazilian scientific community, who are apprehensive about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics,” says Schenberg. In 2015, he launched a campaign on Catarse and raised R$53,000 from more than 400 backers. The study is part of an international project developed by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, an American organization that focuses on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. The Brazilian stage is conducted by Plantando Consciência, an NGO formed by Schenberg after he completed his doctorate at USP in 2009. “We will start testing on patients soon,” he says.