Young Scientists, Starved for Federal Grants, Get Some Donated Help

Center for Genomic Sciences

Luis Hiller is one of the researchers who received a grant from Fund Science in its first round of awards.
August 12, 2010

David G. Vitrant began cultivating a love for science in high school, a road that eventually led him to a doctorate in genetics from the University of Pittsburgh. But earlier this summer, after completing his graduate studies, Mr. Vitrant tackled a different kind of experiment.

With the help of a former college roommate, Mr. Vitrant began supporting other researchers through Fund Science, a small nonprofit organization that asks the general public to help finance the work of young scientists. The group addresses the very issues that soured Mr. Vitrant on doing scientific research himself—the dearth of opportunities for young scientists, and the gap between the scientific community and the rest of society. His first two grantees have never received federal research money.

The average age of researchers when they receive their first major grant from the National Institutes of Health is 42, Mr. Vitrant says. He's referring to the agency's R01 grants, which typically give several years of funding at the level of about $400,000 per year.

Fund Science is offering much less: For its first round of applications, the nonprofit accepted proposals asking for up to $50,000. The group got about 40 applications and accepted two. It also agreed to help promote a third proposal for a science-education venture.

Fund Science, which receives its money from private donors, will give each research project 10 percent of its proposed budget. It expects the young scientists to raise the rest through the online platform Fund Science has created for the researchers to explain their work.

Research Takes on Human Disease

Both researchers picked by Fund Science say they've had little practice explaining their work to people outside of the scientific community.

One of the researchers, N. Luisa Hiller, ran her presentations of her research by her grandmother. "My grandmother is an intelligent, educated woman, but she's not in the field," says Ms. Hiller, a senior research associate at the Center for Genomic Sciences, in Pittsburgh.

Ms. Hiller, who is 34, studies Streptococcus pneumoniae, a common bacterial species that causes childhood ear infections and bacterial meningitis, among other diseases. S. pneumoniae infections are responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million children a year, but the majority of infections don't cause disease. This is because the bacteria's genes can move from one spot in its chromosome to another, creating many genetically distinct strains. Only some of those strains cause disease, Ms. Hiller says.

The project she has proposed sequences the genetic material of at least 20 strains. She hopes to determine the DNA differences between various diseases, and she wants to pinpoint what the bacteria's disease-causing strains have in common that the strains that are harmless lack.

The other research project that Fund Science gave the green light also takes on human disease. Joshua L. Adelman, a 30-year-old postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, proposed a project to study receptors for glutamate, one of the most common chemical signals that neurons use to communicate. When the cellular machinery that takes up glutamate fails to function properly, disorders including Lou Gehrig's disease and epilepsy can result.

Researchers have been able to take snapshots of the receptor at key moments in the cell's process of taking up the neurotransmitter, Mr. Adelman says. But scientists have yet to understand how the receptor transitions from one stage to another. His project, which will receive in-kind donations of time at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, proposes using a supercomputer's high processing capacity to model how the receptor's elements might move. By making predictions based on the physical principles of how the receptor's molecules and atoms can move, he plans to identify parts that are potentially important to its function.

Public Support

The scientists know that they're betting on an untested model for funding their projects. The seed money that Mr. Adelman is receiving from Fund Science is enough for him to purchase some equipment to start his project, he says. And he recognizes that the money he may raise through Fund Science is very little compared with most traditional grants—he only expects his Fund Science project to generate preliminary results to help him apply for more funding. And while Ms. Hiller says she is optimistic about Fund Science's ability to raise enough money for her work, she has other grant applications in the works.

There is the true test of Mr. Vitrant's idea: whether it succeeds in persuading the general public to give enough money to researchers they've never met and projects that they may have little direct investment in. He thinks there needs to be an alternative to traditional means of securing funds, where the odds are hardly favorable for younger scientists. Agencies like the NIH and the National Science Foundation tend to award grants to more-established researchers, making it difficult for young scientists to land support to work on their own ideas.

In recent years, organizations such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have started programs to support young researchers. The NIH has looked inward at its grants-making process to expedite proposal reviews for younger scientists.

"But it's not enough," says Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The NIH's grant program intended to help postdoctoral researchers make the leap to faculty positions is competitive, adds Paula E. Stephan, a professor of economics at Georgia State University. Since it began making awards in 2006, the program has funded 20 percent to 30 percent of its applicants.

Mr. Vitrant doesn't expect the projects his nonprofit supports to all be successful, and he isn't concerned about what potential donors will think if a project fails to produce useful results. "We really want people to understand the research process," he says. "In science, there's a lot of trial and error."

Now that the trial phase of Mr. Vitrant's own experiment is under way, he hopes to turn it into a lasting program. Fund Science has raised more than $100,000 to support future research projects, says Mark A. Friedgan, the organization's co-founder, and Mr. Vitrant is applying for grants from philanthropic foundations so he can work on Fund Science full time.

Mr. Vitrant says he does not regret how his own path has diverged from a career in academic science. "I think I'm happier on this side of the scientific world," he says.