A meth lab could change the future of funding for research.

Ethan Perlstein launched a very successful campaign to fund his own meth lab.  I was one of his donors.  You may be asking: what on earth do illegal substances have to do with The Brave Bosom Project?  I promise that I’m not turning to a life of crime.  Ethan is an evolutionary pharmacologist who is trying to understand how addiction to amphetamines works in the brain.  Rather than spending massive amounts of time writing grant proposals for his research, Ethan decided to try something brave and new by connecting directly with donors.

Here’s why I’m interested:  I created the Brave Bosom Project because we need to find smarter ways to prevent breast cancer.   Basic research doesn’t provide the  short-term return on investment that clinical or pharmaceutical research may offer.  But there’s a big problem we need to solve, and big ideas in cancer research aren’t getting funded.  Government funding for science is shrinking to record lows, and the system to fund science needs to change in some fundamental ways.  To quote Ethan’s Rockethub page:

Fact: the average basic-research life scientist deals with an 80% grant rejection rate, and gets his or her first big government grant at age 42. Basic biomedical research uses advanced 21st century technology, but is still fueled by a clumsy, archaic government-grant funding model that even predates the Internet.

Now, Ethan saw his share of hecklers and kvechers….but he made a believer out of me.  Looking beyond the skeptics, I see potential to help a lot of people by changing the way science is funded.  The challenge lies in making science relatable to the public, and boring projects can be the most important ones to fund.

This is a tough needle to thread, and I think Ethan did this beautifully.  So…let’s thread this needle back to the Brave Bosom Project.  Each year billions of dollars are committed to breast cancer research and awareness campaigns.  But we’re not making enough progress toward ending breast cancer.  My hope is that scientists will realize that they have the power to harness public interest to fund research in a new way.

Researchers in basic science spend so much time writing grants – many times scrambling for money from government and health charities.  Perhaps scientists could start using fundraising as a tool to build a more direct relationship with donors.  And use their data analysis skills to understand how to reach their audience.  Here is one of my favorite examples of data analysis of from Ethan’s Crowdsourcing Discovery campaign….

This is a map of Ethan’s Facebook network data.  Ethan tackled his fundraising data asking some basic questions:  Who makes better donors – Facebook Friends from Burning Man, or buddies from middle school?  Is there a pattern between the ‘connectedness’ of a particular donor to other networks, and the size of their donation?

Understanding what this data is telling us, and finding the answers to these questions can and will help Ethan create a better and smarter fundraising campaign in the future.  And in the process, campaigns like this may change the future of funding for research.