Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Giving people the chance to take part in Science funding : the SciFund challenge

Published originally in Agora, the blog of the L'Oreal Foundation for women in science. This is my post in that blog about the SciFund challenge.

It’s obvious that the economic crisis we are suffering is affecting science. We are seeing science budgets shrink quite quickly all around the world. We are seeing scientists struggling to find money to do their research. We are seeing a decrease in the trust of governments and institutions in research. And this is going to last for a while. But it is in moments like this that creative ideas arise.

A few months ago a couple of American researchers, Jarret Byrnes and Jai Ranganathan, got one of these creative ideas. They were tired of seeing this economic situation on one hand and, on the other hand, they realised that people were willing to give money to different projects, such as the one to build a RoboCop statue in Detroit. So why not ask people to fund research? The seed of the SciFund challenge was sown!

They spread the word through social networks trying to recruit researchers who were interested in taking part in this initiative. The challenge of making the research projects comprehensible to people had two main aims: telling people about the research and trying to get people to donate small (or not that small) amounts of money to fund parts of those projects. And quite a few scientists, from different levels in their research careers and different specialities, signed up.

After a full month of hard work writing the projects to make them understandable, making a video explaining the project (the first-ever video for many of them) and working together to get the best out of each project, the SciFund challenge went live. On the first of November, 49 researchers made it possible. 49 amazing research projects were on the RocketHub platform ready to be “fueled” with people’s donations.

I’m one of those researchers and I’m really impressed with people’s commitment. The SciFund challenge has raised so far more than US$60,000! Another thing that has impressed me about the SciFund challenge is the fact that 43% of the researchers who take part in it are women. Yes, 21 of the 49 projects are from women. This is not bad at all and it’s even more amazing if we take into account that four of the five projects that have already been fully funded are those proposed bywomen. I would like to tell you a bit more about some of these fantastic projects.

Athletes Foot in Worms?

Rebecca Rashid Achterman is a biology instructor at Western Washington University who studies how microbial pathogens cause disease. Her project is about the fungi that cause athlete’s foot – the largest cause of skin infections worldwide. She uses worms for her study because the skin (cuticle) of the worm has a protein that these fungi love to eat and that is present in your skin, hair and nails. Using worms she can have a closer look at the interaction of these fungi with the skin.

Mapping a Bornean Soundscape

Alison Styring is a professor at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She is a field biologist with a focus in conservation and ecology with expertise is Southeast Asian birds. In her project she is asking money to study, record and mapp the sounds from the rainforests of Borneo, which are among the most species-rich habitats in the world. The information she will obtain is going to be very important for understanding the role of animal communication in that ecosystem. In addition, this information will be an important reference for many rarely seen species inhabiting rainforest thickets and canopies.

School of Ants

Andrea Lucky heads the School of Ants project, which is based in the lab of Dr. Rob Dunn at North Carolina State University. The School of Ants project is a citizen-scientist driven study of the ants that live in urban areas, particularly around homes and schools. The project involves thousands of people across North America and is mapping the native and introduced species of ants that live in backyards to understand how and when different species came to live where we find them today.

Smart Delivery

Jennifer Schmitt is a research fellow with the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise. She is working on projects that include corporate embedded sustainability, smart network applications in Tanzania, and energy efficiency financing. Her project wants to develop a new and better way to deliver childhood vaccines by using cell phones and a “Facebook like” social network. The aim is to send small batches of vaccines to continually reach the most rural areas of Tanzania with the help of cell phones and a virtual group of “friends” who will transport the vaccines in the extra space on their bikes, mules or backpacks to the places where they were planning to go.

Cancer? Yeast has answers

This is my project. I’m a postdoctoral researcher at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research in Manchester (UK) and I work with yeast. Yes. Yeast in a Cancer Research Institute. I’ve already written in this blog about some research done on yeast, but now I’m going to tell you about the specific research I’m doing. Cancer cells divide without any control and the key proteins that control this cell division are so important that are (more or less) the same through evolution: from yeast to humans. In our lab in Manchester we study a protein that is increased in many cancers and is involved in promoting cell division. We try to find out how this protein interacts in the cell with other proteins. If some of these secondary proteins are important for the function of the key protein in promoting the uncontrolled division of the cell, inhibiting the specific interaction between them can be a new way to try to treat cancer.

Science needs your collaboration

These are only five of the projects, but the rest are very interesting as well. The initiative is going to be alive until the 15th of December and there are still many projects that need our support. With the SciFund challenge we have the opportunity to contribute to the creation of knowledge in many different fields. This challenge gives us the opportunity to take part in specific research projects. This doesn’t happen very often and we can’t miss it. Now it is our turn, as citizens, to be part of the future of our economies. To be part of science.

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