This week, PLOS biology published the essay “Empowering grassroots innovation to accelerate biomedical research”, a result of a collaboration between researchers at CRI, (INSERM U1284 and Université de Paris), Hackuarium in Lausanne and the Centre for Health Ethics Law and Development in Toronto. It is one of the winning essays of the Reimagine Biomedical Research for a Healthier Future Essay Challenge that was launched by the Health Research Alliance (HRA).
“We argue current biomedical research is hierarchical and closed, leading to a slow pace of innovation and research that often does not serve the needs of society. But beyond identifying the problem, we offer concrete actions that can lead to workable solutions” said Bastian Greshake Tzovaras, the lead author of the essay and research fellow at CRI.
The essay proposes three actionable reforms that could support grassroots innovation in biomedicine, which revolve about improving access to hardware, lab equipment, and consumables, funding routes for grassroots research movements, and ethical oversight. The reforms are building on successful, bottom-up and open innovation communities (such as DIYBio, Fablabs and patient-led research teams). Specifically the authors advocate and advise focusing on the following three topics:
(1) Improve access. Community labs are currently a rare sight across the world. To scale up access, academic institutions should open up parts of their lab spaces for grassroots innovation teams and projects and create a formal legal status of citizen-researcher to provide legal protections and workplace insurance.
(2) Expand funding. Funders should create specific funding routes that are open to community projects. Importantly, these small grants need to account for the fact that these projects are typically not yet organized in a fixed legal entity. Additionally, funding agencies should also allocate a portion of classical research grants to bottom-up partnerships, facilitating mentoring relationships with institutional researchers.
(3) Open oversight. While bottom-up innovators need to follow the same ethical and scientific standards as traditional research, novel mechanisms for this need to be implemented. A simple first step is to open up ethical review procedures to bottom-up innovators. Furthermore, alternative models like participant-led ethics committees and crowdsourced reviews should be explored.
“The aim of our reforms is to better integrate citizens within the research community, to reimagining biomedicine as more participatory, inclusive, and responsive to societal needs. Citizens are already taking part in biomedical research - by supporting them we can unlock the full potential of grassroots innovation” concluded Greshake Tzovaras.
The money from the HRA award will be matched by CRI to fund multiple projects in line with the essay recommendations.
“By offering micro-grants to most promising projects that challenge the current methods we hope that we can jump-start the actions we advocate in the essay and demonstrate how biomedical research can be improved here and now“ said Dusan Misevic, one of the co-authors and Director of Research Affairs at CRI.
The details of the call for micro-funding for open biomedical research projects will be announced in September.