Public investment in the commercial application of scientific research is sparking interest in some of our biggest social challenges, such as antibiotic resistance.
Scientists and industry should show empathy for public concerns and together we should explore the advantages of citizens having a say in priority-setting for science and technology.
Europe produces about 30% of the world’s knowledge but we lag behind on innovation for goods and services made in Europe. There are many reasons for this, but a key problem is the lack of collaborative research between industry and academia.
Take antibiotics – a timely example, as we marked the 6th European Antibiotic Awareness Day on 18 November. The figures speak for themselves: hospital infections worldwide cause 25,000 deaths and illness results in productivity losses of more than €1.5 billion a year in Europe alone. The antibiotic resistance challenge is a prime example where Europe is ahead in research, and the public understands the issue, but there is lack of industrial take up.
Crowdfunding has already shown significant success in generating equity stakes for start-up businesses. The principle behind the model is that anyone can provide a financial contribution via an internet-based application to support a project they are interested in. It is not just about raising additional financial resources, it also increases trust for subsequent investors.
One start-up company that intends to put new antibacterial drugs on the market raised €300,000 by public crowdfunding in less than three months; this led to a multi-million Wellcome Trust Seeding Drug Discovery Award that in turn generated significant additional public research grants.
Crowdfunding could clearly be an interesting tool to fill the gap between universities and industry, and at the same time involve citizens in research. We cannot rely solely on the wish that scientists’ own interest will bring about public good. We must look for a better link between the society of today and the science and technology of tomorrow, to deliver the best possible future for our citizens.
Nevertheless, some benchmarking is needed in order to guarantee credibility. The antibiotic example shows that fears about crowdfunding are not founded, and demonstrates that science excellence can be matched with social relevance.
Scientists are not asked to turn into entrepreneurs, but to team-up with them. This process of “democratising” science and technology does not remove funding from the brightest and best scientists and direct private investment may in turn generate additional public funding for science and its application.
Didier Schmitt is scientific adviser and foresight coordinator in the Chief Scientific Adviser’s Office and in the bureau of European policy advisers to the president of the European Commission. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of the European Commission.