Open Science Funding – Government Grants and Cash Incentives

We recently started an open source drug discovery project for malaria. Starting with sensational hit compounds from the GSK Tres Cantos dataset, we are trying to convert these hits into good leads by sharing all data and ideas. Every experiment is online. Anyone can take part. In fact one of the main things that’s needed on this project is for people to make compounds. If you’d like to make some, maybe as part of a summer project, or as part of an undergrad thesis (just like Laura, our undergrad, who did just that), or if you are a hotshot synthetic chemist with some time at the weekend, come on board. There are some important compounds that need to be made, and we can get them biologically evaluated and publish the results. We are at the moment directly supported by the Medicines for Malaria Venture, who are providing money and a very high level of intellectual and logistical leadership behind the scenes.

There are two extremely cool things I want to share.

One is that last week we found out we were funded on a larger scale by the Aussie government and MMV. This “Linkage” scheme of the Australian Research Council was the way we funded our first open science project with WHO/TDR back in 2008 (this project is still very much active, more of which another time). For the present grant, MMV chipped in cash, and the ARC amplified that up to a full 3-year grant that fully supports a postdoc in the lab to make compounds full time. Depending on resources from other places we may be able to increase that further. We need to – there’s so much to do. Regardless, we will be able to make compounds for 3 years to lead this open source malaria project. I’m blown away by how exciting this is. Open science, funded.

So my two open science guys and I have been heading over to the pub to talk about the projects (we need to do this more, guys). This is an excellent excuse to drink beer, but we also need to address the central question – how to get people involved. How to leverage and encourage interest from others.

There are two immediate things. The first is that we’re going to be running an Open Source Drug Discovery for Malaria meeting at Sydney Uni on February 24th. The head of the nascent OSDD Malaria project in India, Saman Habib, is coming. I’ll shortly be advertising this meeting more generally. We’re going to stream and archive it online for those who can’t make it. The aim is to work out how best to do open source drug discovery, plain and simple.

The second thing is this: when I was writing the malaria grant I was contacted by an organisation I can’t name (they requested to remain anonymous at this early stage) who said they were interested in sponsoring a prize for open source drug discovery. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “A prize is an interesting idea. That might help create incentives for participation. The reason I’d rejected it is the Gift Relationship – that if you start paying people for things, the quality might go down, because the incentive changes to one of more direct self-interest.”

Organisation: “Maybe, but maybe not – we could give it a shot.”

Me: “Sure – maybe we should trial it. We’re scientists, let’s experiment. There’s one problem though – no teams.”

Organisation: “What?”

Me: “There can be no teams. If you have teams then people will keep secrets, negating the whole point of open science. Innocentive has teams, meaning people don’t share. It’s just competition between closed groups, which is not open science. It’s an incentive, but it doesn’t change the way things are done. It’s Open Innovation, which is different from open science.”

Organisation: “How about a prize for the community which is unlocked upon a milestone being reached?”

Me: [Shocked at the quality of the idea] “I’m shocked at the quality of that idea. In drug discovery there ARE milestones – specific things that can be achieved and quantified. I’d have to ask the malaria and medchem community for what might be appropriate.”

Organisation: “Sure – consult with them. If you get the grant we’ll try to commit some money. How much? $30K? A million? If the milestone is reached by a certain date, the money will be unlocked. Half could go to the community who played the most active role in the solution. Half could go to a charity treating malaria.”

Me: “That’s also a good idea. Apportioning the prize money could be decided by the community themselves. We’d have to disqualify anyone who did not play by open science rules. Interesting. Let’s see if we get the grant.”

Well, we got the grant. So I can now call upon this organisation to pledge the prize and see if they sign off. Accordingly, I need to work out:

1) Whether a prize (a team-less prize) is a good idea, or whether we should avoid cash incentives altogether. I’m torn. Need advice from open science/crowdsourcing advocates.

2) If we did have a prize, what kind of milestone should we set? We are starting with nanomolar compounds in a whole-cell assay. These are astonishing hits. What criteria for lead progression should we include in a milestone? Something that is achievable in 18 months. This is the technical medchem/malaria question for which we need advice.

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