The fight to sustain the beauty and power of scientific research [re]starts now.
The big, hairy two-fold problem: Funding for research decreases while the costs to do research increase
I am a scientist and damn proud to be one. Everything I have done or accomplished — however big or small — has been related to my work in a lab. Like most aspiring scientists, mid-way through my training, I couldn’t imagine working outside of a lab or doing something other than research. But then, I left the lab because everyone I saw more advanced and accomplished than me weren’t able to find faculty jobs or similar scientific posts. I noticed that even those colleagues of mine who were able to get faculty jobs, struggled to keep the doors of their labs open and their projects fully funded. Sadly, the observations I made about research science then (~5 years ago) have only gotten worse, and so, it’s becoming commonplace for very well-trained scientists to leave their academic career tracks, and pursue a more certain and lucrative career outside of research.
The outlook for research science isn’t pretty. During the current explosion of technology innovation, a near instinctual collaborative environment, and an unparalleled time of data housing and processing being a scientist and asking daring questions should be the norm. And it isn’t. Instead, being a research scientist is extremely hard. And according to a recently poll of 270 leading scientists, the chief problem facing research is funding (See The 7 biggest problems facing science).
For the last 15 years, the funding for basic scientific research has decreased to ~22% (See NIH Research Funding Trends). During the same timespan, the cost for doing experiments has increased about 20% (See NIH BRDPI). So, if you’re a faculty member running a lab over the last decade, you have experienced a +40% resource gap. In fact, Dr. Francis Collins (NIH Director), recently stated,
“Medical research right now is not limited by ideals. It’s not limited by research potential. It’s not limited by talent. It’s limited by resources.“
Something has to change with how research is done and there are good models to think through what scientists can do to save research. The most apparent answer: build a shared economy.
The shared economy must come to scientific research
The central purpose of a share economy is to use technology to empower individuals, businesses, and government to think differently about resource sharing and reusing. If successful, shared economies provide new opportunities for growth and productivity while reducing composition and waste by increasing the repurposing and conversation of resources. Shared economies force all participants to look at resources differently and use them more efficiently in order to ensure their preservation. In fact, there has been published accounts of the need for an overarching shared economy in research (See The sharing economy comes to scientific research).
But until we launched Rheaply, there wasn’t a marketplace or similar platform that created a shared economy for scientific research resources. Given this obvious need, we decided to build one. Our guiding principles for developing the first version of Rheaply’s marketplace were simple, make it: (1) easy to use, (2) accessible on every type of computing device, and (3) compatible with research organization’s IT infrastructure enabling easy on-boarding. By all accounts, we have accomplished these goals and more, and we are proud to be the only marketplace and shared economy for research that connects research organizations and scientists.
Shared economies can be natural circular economies — sustainability pays for itself
Rheaply’s efforts in creating a shared economy around scientific research resources was recently featured in Nature, in an article entitled, “How going green can raise cash for your lab”. This article highlights the power of sharing surplus scientific supplies and resources with your colleagues, and how doing so can bring extra cash into the lab. In fact, going green through use of Rheaply is both a cost efficient and sustainable practice.
We like to think that the shared economy we are building for research is actually a circular economy. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (a leader in circular economy construction), a circular economy is one that goes beyond “take, make, and dispose” (a linear economy) and is restorative and regenerative by aiming to redefine products and services to design waste out while minimizing negative impacts on productivity (See What is a Circular Economy?).
At Rheaply, we like to call our marriage of the shared economy + circular economy “circular discovery” where we connect scientists to better share resources enabling more breakthroughs and developments without the need of more funding.
Doing nothing makes you part of the problem
One key principle to shared economies, and is especially true as it pertains to scientific research, is participation. Every research institution, organization, and outlet face the same resource gap realities as well as have the same sustainability goals. In fact, the US Federal Government has now mandated a system like Rheaply at every organization that’s takes >$1 of Federal grant money, (See 200.318 (2)). Now is the right time that world-class research organizations lead the movement to a more shared and circular economy around research resources, and we are poised to help them do so.
Words are nice and promote solidarity on this issue, but action is required. If not, the structural problems facing scientific research — larger resource gaps, greater talent/skill churn, and uncertainty — will grow. It’s time to do something to save scientific research for the next generation, and our hope is that all scientists feel obligated to be apart of that fight.