The other day, someone pointed me to an interesting Huffington Post blog about crowd funding HIV vaccine research. My initial impulse was excitement, since I like the notion of being able to fund small projects when there isn't enough grant funding to go around. However, the more I thought about it, the more worried I felt about the idea - and how much people understand about the utility (or lack thereof) of their donation.
HIV vaccine research has a long, complex, and largely unsuccessful history. That's not because of a lack of funding. It's because HIV is a fast-evolving, highly-evasive virus that is difficult to effectively target. More funding wouldn't hurt, but there is a large amount being spent on the research targets that have been identified, through peer review, as being the most viable for study. The reason we don't have an HIV vaccine isn't that people haven't been trying. It's that the trying hasn't yet worked.
That said, good research ideas certainly fall through the funding cracks. Between the fact that there isn't enough money to go around, and the fact that there is far more to writing a successful grant than just doing good science, it seems like crowd funding could be a good way to finance small studies to get the results needed to do larger work. However, my worry is that people are going to fund a study like this and think that it's going to buy them a functional, safe, and FDA approved vaccine next year. Unfortunately, that's not how it works. The money currently being raised is just going to a preliminary FDA filing. Even if everything in the trials that followed worked perfectly, it would take years, and millions more dollars, before a commercial vaccine could be produced.