Can social media and crowdfunding sustain independent researchers?
Note: This article was originally published on August 5, 2013.
Ethan Perlstein is a contradiction: an utterly modern researcher who hearkens to the 19th century tradition of the “gentleman scientist.”
Perlstein, a self-dubbed evolutionary pharmacologist with a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology from Harvard, is one of the most vocal members of the so-called independent scientist movement. As with many trailblazers, he had no intention of starting a revolution; rather, as he puts it, “my back was to the wall.”
That wall presented itself in the summer of 2012, when he was completing his fifth year as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton.
“I’d already gone through one year of the application cycle for assistant professorships and ran into a buzz-saw, because for one job opening, there are 300-400 applicants. I was preparing for a second bid,” he recalled. “I was told, ‘two years is nothing on the academic job market these days; you could be spending four years on the market. One postdoc is not enough these days; you need two postdocs.’ I just realized, I don’t want to do this. I want to do my science.”
The seeds for going rogue had been planted already on Twitter, where scientists were openly and honestly kvetching in a way that only really happens on social media. Some tweets were grim, such as: “80% of PhDs in biology don’t end up on the tenure track.” (For more on this, see Perlstein’s clever blog post, “The Tenure Games.”)
Until January 2011, he had no interest in Twitter, but once he created an account and started connecting with other scientists, he began to learn about alternative tracks for people in his situation. “People were talking about new ways to publish and review papers after publication, crowdfunding and all these alternative things, so I educated myself on these trends.”
He started to study the history of independent scientists and discovered that “it goes back to the gentleman scientist tradition, like Darwin. I thought, I don’t really want to resurrect that tradition of the male-dominated, aristocratic leader class, but they did come up with huge discoveries.”
As the term gentleman scientist implies, those people had money to play around with. Perlstein said, “The biggest stumbling block for someone who’s not a theorist in biology is that it’s so expensive to maintain a lab, and the supplies to use in that lab.” Perlstein’s specific area of biomedical research is particularly costly. So he made a very web 2.0 move: crowdfunding.
Perlstein cited a tweet he read recently, which called crowdfunding the “gateway drug” of the independent scientist. “I think there’s a ring of truth to that,” he added.
In September 2012, Perlstein decided to start a meth lab for mice to find out where radioactive amphetamines accumulate in mouse brain cells. He launched a crowdfunding campaign on the site Rockethub, a kind of Kickstarter for science for academic projects. The tag line, “Crowdfund my meth lab, yo,” was accompanied by a photo from Breaking Bad, about a teacher who runs a meth lab. The goal: to raise $25,000.
It was hip. It was bold. It was youthful. It was as good as an example as any of how wide the gap is between academic scientists and independent scientists, reminiscent of Steve Jobs circa 1975 versus IBM of the same era. It is a safe bet that some of his former peers thought the move populist or unbecoming of an academic, particularly with the Breaking Bad allusions. But it worked: He raised $25,460 from over 400 people. And yes, as with Kickstarter, he offered little thank-you gestures to his donors, including “a 3-D printed model of methamphetamine the size of an iPhone that kind of looks like a dreidl.” He prints it himself on a 3-D printer. It is blue, a nod to Breaking Bad: “In the show they talk about blue crystal,” he explained.
Trinkets aside, Perlstein is publishing the results of his research on his web site, in real time, rather than sitting on data for journal publication. One of the most controversial aspects of Perlstein’s independent scientist concept is that research transparency is key. “Crowdfunding could be one of the pillars supporting independent scientists, but it only works if you tell people what you are doing with their money.”
That is where many scientists tempted to take the Perlstein route would stop short and possibly turn back. There appear to be too many risks, including the possibility of someone else stealing the idea. Perlstein laughs in the face of such fears. “Being an independent scientist is self-liberation from the constant paranoia that someone will steal [your idea]. My answer to people is that if you’re working in an area that is so faddish, you should think about working in a different area.”
It’s not just chutzpah. He also thinks that stealing ideas is not as feasible as people seem to think. “We’re taking a technique in pharmacology that was developed decades ago. Someone could have done this at any time since then, but no one has. My talking about it now is not going to make someone say, ‘We’re going to do it.’ And even if they were to try to scoop us, they’re not going to do it overnight. They’re going to go through the same growing pains of getting preliminary data.”
And here is the part where he starts to channel the spirit of his 19th century independent scientist forbearers: He is a purist. He’s out to find cures for rare diseases, among which he includes Cystic Fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, and Parkinson’s–all of which are relatively neglected by big drug companies.
In the end, it is the science that matters. “Of course, someone could be doing in parallel and in stealth what we’re doing, but who cares? If we do the same experiment and independently get the same result, that’s the scientific method. Isn’t that the whole point? Getting the same result no matter how many times you repeat the experiment? I don’t care about getting a paper published. Those considerations don’t matter to me anymore.”
Is he a mad scientist?
He could be. But the evidence increasingly suggests that he will end up being on the right side of history. He points out that the independent scientist model will only become easier over time. “Technological changes inevitably accelerate the process and make it irreversible,” he said. “In my field, in biology, the cost of sequencing DNA has dropped a million fold in the last six years.” He points out that this rate of acceleration is much faster than in other areas of technology. “You think Moore’s Law is incredible, [with computing complexity doubling every two years], but the cost of sequencing DNA is dropping like a rock. [There is] an app on the iPhone that can sequence genomes.”
The independent scientist movement is not a fad, said Perlstein, as long as problems for scientists in academia continue. “There are too many people rising up in the pyramid scheme of academia to be absorbed by positions,” he said. “Independent science is a safety valve that allows the pressure building from all this excess human capital. The independent path could absorb them, but that’s not going to edify academia. They will keep charging along as if nothing ever happened.” This will probably change over time, said Perlstein, as independent scientists start to prove successful in areas like fundraising. But in the meantime, “academia’s not going to do anything to course-correct.”
And Perlstein is not waiting for that to happen in any case. Independent science is his chosen path; he is not going about this with the expectation that it will impress a university faculty into hiring him. And though he admits he has “burned bridges” with the academy, he does not think he will be considered a renegade for long. “This trend is not going to stop. It has revolutionary moments, like all movements, but this train is out of the station.”