“Nobel prize winners shouldn’t need to go around playing tambourines to raise money.” According to tradition, this is what Ross Perot said to Mike Brown and Joe Goldstein when he bumped into them pounding the pavements of downtown Dallas shortly after they received the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The back story has become an essential part of UT Southwestern’s creation mythology. Brown and Goldstein met as medicine interns at MGH and became friends through their common interest in trying to understand disease on a molecular level. They decided to understand what genetic defect caused a young girl to present with a myocardial infarction and LDL cholesterol levels dramatically above that typically seen in adults with coronary artery disease. This started a 40 year partnership that took them first to the NIH and then on to UT Southwestern where they were among the earliest young investigators to be recruited by the forward thinking Chairman of Medicine, Donald Seldin. Using recombinant DNA technology to find the gene and its corresponding protein that could correct the abnormal function of cultured cells of patients with Familial Hypercholesterolemia, the inherited condition resulting in high cholesterol levels and unusually aggressive atherosclerosis, Brown and Goldstein’s team identified the LDL Receptor. This proved to be a crucial finding in understanding how cells metabolize, synthesize, and take up cholesterol. The discovery paved the way for the development of statins, the class of cholesterol lowering drugs that have protected thousands of patients from developing heart attacks and strokes. The story is well known to physician-scientists as one of the sterling examples of clinically-trained scientists making a fundamental medical discovery based on high-resolution study of a remarkable patient.
Why were Brown and Goldstein, freshly returned from Stockholm, out pressing the flesh to raise money from the barons of business in “Who Shot J.R.?”-era Dallas? Concerned that there would not be a new generation of science-minded doctors due to the financial pressures of medical school debt, B+G decided that UT Southwestern needed to launch an MD/PhD program that would train aspiring physician-scientists in both disciplines. The NIH had just started funding MD/PhD training at a small number of sites and insufficient funds were available to support the robust program they envisioned. Rather than grant writing, they decided to take the case directly to Dallas’ philanthropists. Their first pitch meeting with Ross Perot came before The Prize. The way B+G tell the story, Ross Perot dismissed them by saying, “When I read about you guys in the New York Times, then we’ll talk.” A few months later, out on the sidewalk in the hot Texas sun, Brown and Goldstein must have asked Ross if he had read about them on the front pages. The check was written and the rest is history. Ross Perot has been an angel investor in the UT Southwestern MD/PhD program, one of the largest in the country, for more than twenty years. Perot makes a personal appearance most years to give a recruiting pitch to the college students who have been accepted to the program. No surprise, the guy is an unbelievable salesman. The pitch worked on me.
Our story reveals that two of the most recognized and powerful scientists in the country needed to take to the street to fund an out-of-the-box pet project. It begs the question, what happens when less established investigators cannot find lifeblood for their research through accepted channels?
An intriguing story by Thomas Lin in the July 11th Times describes how scientists are using “crowd funding” websites to solicit donations for their research directly from the curious public. Dr. Jennifer Calkins of Evergreen State College in Washington State and Dr. Jennifer Gee of the Bernard Biological Field Station in Claremont, California are ornithologists who needed funding to support a field trip to study the elegant quail (genus Callipepla) in Mexico. Although they both received their PhDs in the field almost 10 years ago, their appointments fell short of the “principal investigator” status needed to apply for National Science Foundation grants (the sorry plight of “post-docs” in so many areas of academia is a book-length topic). Rather than hunting for other grants, they put up a page on Kickstarter.com, an online “microphilanthropy” site which connects creative types, usually seeking funding for art and music projects, with potential donors. They sold T-shirts featuring a line-drawn head shot of an elegant quail, beak mid-squawk, plumage jaunty, for $12. The top ticket fundraising item was a $750 guided field tour with the scientists in California or Washington. The site includes a user-friendly rational for the research which makes a case for society’s need for expanded knowledge about a little-known species. It goes beyond a typical research précis in proposing an “alternative approach” to scientific research that would include a literary and photographic blog in addition to peer-reviewed articles and presentations at scientific meetings. One T-shirt, glossy 8 x 10 pic, and adopt-a-quail donation at a time, the pair met their goal and raised $4,873 from 55 donors. The Doctors Jennifer are purchasing $135-a-piece quail-tracking radio transmitters and packing their bags to make the trip to Mexico this fall.
In today’s research grant climate, playing tambourines and passing the hat may be the only recourse for scientists to fund the work that they were trained (usually with federal money) to do. With the $322 million cut in the NIH budget, part of the April budget deal for the current fiscal year, the overall success rate on grant applications to the NIH is expected to fall to 17%, the lowest percentage ever. This success rate is for all applicants, including senior, well-funded veterans, not just for new investigators trying to start their own labs. As in so many areas of the economy, this appears to be the toughest time in at least a generation for young people to make their way in biomedicine.
“Crowd funding” and other mechanisms of connecting researchers with interested consumers of research are likely to become the norm and not an alternative approach to fundraising. Efforts to bypass NIH study sections, scientific advisory panels, and peer reviewers will be a consequence of the ever-more brutal competition for traditional funding. Scientists have always needed to sell their research, but instead of trying to convince their colleagues, they will need to tailor the pitch to would-be investors. In the case of disease-oriented research, scientists are already seeking funding directly from disease advocate-supported foundations. The next step for researchers hoping to study a particular disease will be for them to solicit donations directly from patients and their loved ones. In the same way that bird-fanciers now have to directly support ornithologists if the work of characterizing new quail species is to move forward, patients and their families will need to organize and contribute to maximize support for their diseases.
The advantage of this more direct kind of fundraising may be that the public will get the research that it is willing to pay for. Investors may be more willing to support out-of-the-box proposals and diversify the portfolio of ongoing studies. The downsides are also very clear. Potential donors might be hard pressed to sort out requests from promising under-funded scientists and those from charlatans and scam artists without the benefit of expert review. It is unclear whether crowd-sourced contributions would even the research funding playing field or continue to funnel more money to the established and powerful. With so many examples of basic discoveries in seemingly esoteric fields having a huge impact on medical research (RNA interference, protein ubiquitinylation, jellyfish green fluorescent protein…), it is possible that the public might be just as good as experts in the crap-shoot of picking the next big thing.
The next time you are reading about interesting new science on the web, just remember to put a few bills in the tip jar.