The Glowing Plant: A New Paradigm for Funding Science?


May 18, 2013 06:19 EDT

In a world of austerity and shrinking research budgets, the crowd-funding method at the core of the Glowing Plant Project offers a radically different approach to scientific research funding.

The first synthetic biology project that has launched on Kickstarter, the Glowing Plant Project, brings a whole new approach to scientific research. This project, which has raised over $365k in under four weeks, aims to create a real glowing plant using synthetic biology. The project is testing the new frontier of science in which science is conducted outside the walls of a big institution.

About the Project

Antony Evans, the project manager says: "The goal of the project is to educate the public about the potential of this technology and inspire others to create projects like this."  The goal is to encourage the potential of synthetic biology, which has a promising future, since the project’s lead scientist, Kyle Taylor, is well-qualified with a PhD in Cell and Molecular biology from Stanford.

The project aims to replicate and improve on research that was done by the State University of New York in 2010. To do this, the team uses Genome Compiler's software to design DNA sequences based on the glowing marine bacteria,  Vibrio Fischeri. Currently, the team is now looking for funding to print the DNA and then transform the sequences into the target plant. They will then spend the following few months using the additional funds raised to optimize the sequences and create a stronger glowing plant.

Implications for Science

With crowd-funding, there are no gatekeepers determining the value of the project; rather, the public and ultimate beneficiaries of research vote with their wallets. What is radical about this is not just the funding method, but how it turns the whole institutional scientific model upside-down. 

In a traditional research institution there are often strong controls in place to protect Intellectual Property. These controls are in place to create a future revenue stream for the institution, but they restrict collaboration and create barriers to the commercialization of the technology, which slows down progress.

With the Glowing Plant Project, in contrast, everything will be open sourced and public. They will be publishing their progress online as they work on the project. This will achieve three goals:

  1. It educates people about a process that is normally invisible, providing accountability to backers and inspiring others to get involved.
  2. It provides transparency to other scientists, introducing a new form of peer review where other experts can contribute their thoughts in real time. The idea is that this openness will result in better science through early detection and correction of errors and better supply of new ideas, which possibly could have fixed the problems we saw with the austerity budget analysis.
  3. It creates faster progress for the field as knowledge sharing is instant, rather than the two-year delay that occurs when publishing in a scientific journal.

As a result, this approach empowers young scientists in their own work. Crowd-funding research means that young scientists no longer need to operate within the rigid hierarchical academic setting, at a time when more and more young scientists are getting disillusioned in the trudge towards tenure. Instead, this process enables and encourages young scientists to work on their own projects without answering to senior professors.

The Future

In a world of austerity and shrinking research budgets, this crowd-funding method at the core of the Glowing Plant Project offers a radically different approach to scientific research funding. Critiques may perceive important research as too boring to grab the public’s attention and that scientists lack the marketing skills to undergo this process. But the increasing success of the Glowing Plant Project is continuously proving these views to be misconceptions. The response to the Glowing Plant Project has shown how science and the public can collaborate to benefit society, and hopefully the implementation of this method will begin a new trend.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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