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Why is an antibiotic-chasing scientist going cap in hand to the crowd?

Siouxsie Wiles explains why she’s using crowdfunding to bankroll her lab’s effort in response to the global crisis of antimicrobial resistance

The crisis is real: we are running out of medicines to treat many of the microbes that cause disease in humans and animals. The crisis will affect us here in New Zealand and the national action plan being put together by the government will only delay the impact. All New Zealanders can help by practicing high standards of hygiene and taking antibiotics only as prescribed.

Those are the stark messages contained in a report from the Royal Society Te Apārangi on the global calamity that is antimicrobial resistance. Over the last few months they’ve had a team of doctors, scientists and vets (disclosure: I was one of them) to review the evidence, and put the crisis in the context of New Zealand.

Obviously, it’s going to take more than good handwashing to avert this crisis. That’s why Cure Kids have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $250,000 for my lab’s search for new antibiotics. This is an unusual way to fund scientific research, so I’ve had a stab at answering some of the questions it raises.

Wait, aren’t you a scientist? Aren’t you paid to do research? Why do you need to crowdfund?

Excellent questions. Yes, I’m a scientist and I run a research group at the University of Auckland. My actual job title is senior lecturer, so I’m mostly paid to teach, though my contract says I must also spend 40% of my time focused on research. Unfortunately most universities don’t just hand out money to pay for that research. Which is OK if the research just involved me thinking and writing, but my research (including our search for new antibiotics) needs people to help do the experiments, and money to buy consumables (stuff like Petri dishes and chemicals) and to pay to access expensive bits of equipment. I have to raise all this money myself by writing grant applications to my university, government funding agencies, and charities.

If your research is so important why isn’t the government funding it?

Another excellent question! In New Zealand, the government is by far the biggest funder of medical research, but we spend less than the OECD average so competition is fierce. Success rates for many schemes are below 10%. This doesn’t mean that the other 90% of applications are unfundable, just that there isn’t enough money in the pot for everyone. Alas, we waste vast amounts of time and money trying to be the successful ones.

A recent study of medical researchers in Australia found that it took them 38 working days on average to prepare an application to the National Health and Medical Research Council. For just one funding round, that was the equivalent of 550 working years of researchers’ time, costing 66 million Australian dollars in salary. The year of the study, only 21% of proposals were successful. What that means is that 434.5 working years, and more than $52 million, was lost by the research community because there was only enough money in the pot to fund a fifth of the proposals, and a judging panel had to choose between them. Recent research has also shown that judging panels aren’t very good at telling the difference between good applications.

To be fair, New Zealand has brought in a two-stage application system for quite a bit of its funding schemes to try to minimise the time wasted by researchers. First we submit a short “expression of interest” application and then only a small number of these get picked and invited to submit a full application. But even those short applications take time to prepare. Fitting our idea on to one page can actually be harder than on 10.

So what does the government fund?

Not much infectious diseases research. The bulk of government funding that I am eligible to apply for comes from the Health Research Council, which between 2012 and 2016 allocated $365 million for “applied” medical research that will improve human health within a few years. Infectious diseases research got about 10% of that. $365 million might sound like a lot of money, but about half of it went straight to the institutions to help pay for stuff like electricity and water and admin salaries. Then there’s the Marsden Fund, which is for riskier “blue-skies” research. Over the past five years, medical researchers have submitted more than 500 applications to the Marsden Fund’s Biomedical panel. Forty-six were funded, seven of which were related to infectious diseases.

In 2012, the New Zealand government announced a $60 million initiative called the National Science Challenges, aimed at solving the most important science challenges facing our country. An 11-person ‘Peak Panel’ was appointed and chaired by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, and tasked with recommending the challenges for the government to approve. There are four health-related challenges but the panel specifically excluded infectious diseases from them. They are only to focus on non-communicable diseases. This is a big blow for infectious diseases research, as the government has indicated that other funders, like the Health Research Council, will be moving to align more of their research investments to support the challenges. This means that almost $1.6 billion of funding will be invested in the National Science Challenges.

With the National Science Challenges out of bounds, I’ve applied to both the Health Research Council and Marsden multiple times. Alas, our antibiotic discovery project is too early stage to meet the Health Research Council’s criteria, and my CV is not strong enough to compete with the older, more established researchers who’ve been getting funding from the Marsden Fund and Health Research Council since they were my age.

Hang on, infectious diseases weren’t considered a challenge? But what about antimicrobial resistance?

Crazy, isn’t it? New Zealand has rising rates of infectious diseases, and the antimicrobial-resistance crisis isn’t going to miraculously by-pass our wonderful set of islands, so I can’t think of a better topic for a National Science Challenge. But the Peak Panel disagreed. They were tasked with choosing the challenges on the criteria of additionality (that is, what would they add to the science sector) and current scientific capacity and capability. At the press conference announcing the challenges, I asked Sir Peter Gluckman why infectious diseases had been excluded. He replied that the challenges focused on the areas in which New Zealand had capacity and capability. In other words, to the Peak Panel our country doesn’t have a critical mass of people working in infectious diseases research. Ouch! It’s not hard to see how they reached this conclusion though. There were no infectious diseases experts on the panel, and none of the esteemed professors actively working in the area made any submissions for them to consider.

Ok, so what about charities then? Are they plugging the gap?

While charities are an important source of funding for medical research in New Zealand, the amount they distribute is a drop in the ocean compared to the government. And most of those charities are related to specific diseases, like cancer and heart disease. Now ask yourself: how often have your friends ask you to sponsor them to run a marathon for diarrhoea or pneumonia? I’m guessing never. That’s because there aren’t any charities dedicated to infectious diseases research.

Cure Kids have seen how a lack of new antibiotics is going to affect kids in New Zealand. Kids like Elijah, who relied on antibiotics during his cancer treatment. Or kids like Finn, who has heart and airway conditions and who’s life has been saved by antibiotics several times. Or kids like Addison, who was a healthy normal child who ended up fighting for her life in hospital with a bacterial infection. She’s been left with a damaged heart.

What are you going to use the $250,000 for?

Over the last two and a half years, Cure Kids have given my lab almost $150,000 to fund our search for new antibiotics and things are looking promising. The $250,000 will let us work on the project more intensively for a year. It’ll provide the money to employ two scientists to work on the project full time, as well as money for all the Petri dishes and chemicals we need.

Where do I sign up?

At Cure Kid’s website, where you can choose to donate $30, $50 or $100. Each of those amounts comes with a different little thank you gift from us, including a limited-edition Otis Frizzell print and a glowing bacterial art kit. You are welcome to donate more or less too. Every cent helps!

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.