The National Institutes of Health, which funds the majority of public research in the U.S., has seen a slow reduction in its budget over the last few years. It now rejects at least half the proposals it receives, which naturally puts the work of untried younger applicants most at risk. They don’t have the name-recognition and stature of more senior faculty.
That’s where Donors Cure is trying to fill in with crowdfunding. A platform for young researchers, it gives a voice to people who might otherwise want to pack up and leave their labs behind. “Funding from NIH is not doing well,” says co-founder Joseph Helpern. “We offer an alternative for small pilot projects, so young investigators can get off the ground and eventually can get full funding.”
The site, based at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), currently has 19 projects looking for money, including Clayton Lewis’s proposal for an anti-pancreatic cancer compound called ABC294640. Another proposal from Rahul Desikan, a researcher from the University of California, San Diego, investigates a possible genetic link between Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.
Each researcher gets help from a “CURE-ator” who communicates with donors throughout the process. “Our goal is to build a relationship between the donor and the researcher, so the researcher is not a mythical person in a lab-coat locked away somewhere, but as an actual person who’s dedicated their life to doing research,” says managing director Tara Eckenrode Sokolowski. “This is how to get them closer to doing what they want to do and you are a part of that process.”
Though it’s still early days, Helpern, a professor at MUSC, says the site allows donors to feel like they’re giving more directly to research. “We’ve heard from people that, yes, they’ve given $100 to such and such foundation last year and they’re sure it did some good, but they’re not exactly sure what it did,” he says. “This is more of a direct relationship between donor and researcher.”