Circle of Friends

Rick Spinrad
Rick Spinrad

In the 1960s, the Beatles sang about getting by with a little help from their friends. In the never-ending search for funding, scientists have sung the same tune, but their circle of acquaintances is expanding. They’re partnering with a wider variety of organizations and accommodating more diverse needs. So, as a result, Oregon State’s research enterprise is becoming more creative.

For the past half-century, researchers have relied largely on public funds from the federal government: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Department of Defense (DoD), National Science Foundation (NSF) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to name a few. Plans to double the budgets of several federal funding agencies have suffered from overall reductions and sequestration, with the result that nowadays, the catchphrase is, “Flat budgets are the new doubling.”

These trends are likely to constrain public funding for the foreseeable future. For this and other reasons, Oregon State scientists are working more closely with private investors such as businesses and foundations. Because the goals of public and private organizations vary, we are becoming more flexible and responsive. That means moving at the speed of business instead of the speed of academia or government. It requires that we aim at multiple objectives, from basic science to commercial application. And we need to protect intellectual property rights, including the right to publish.

Private-sector organizations tend to be driven by commercial markets. The West Coast oyster industry, for example, needs confidence that production methods will meet the demand in restaurants and supermarkets. Wheat suppliers need grain with well-defined qualities for food processors. Flat-screen producers must maintain an edge in a highly competitive consumer-electronics market.

There are a lot of challenges to this new paradigm. Since so many private investors rely on the reputation of the researcher, it’s often harder for a new scientist to “break in.” And many foundations simply won’t pay the overhead that supports research infrastructure (see “The Hidden Costs of Research” in Terra, fall 2013).

And, most challenging (while being quite exciting), we are just learning how to deal with the emerging trend in grassroots appeals — aka, crowdsourcing — to fund research projects. Seasoned researchers and graduate students are considering the use of websites such as and to raise money for science. With a few clicks, individuals are donating money for hopeful ideas ranging from a free vaccine against HIV to the search for near-Earth asteroids. This cottage industry even has its own Twitter hashtag, #crowdsource. Groups such as the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities are helping to address this phenomenon.

In the future, the most successful research programs will be those that adapt to a rapidly developing environment but maintain the heart of a principled, value-driven enterprise. And yes, with a little help from a lot of new friends.

Editor’s note: Rick Spinrad received the Oceanology International Lifetime Achievement Award in March for his accomplishments in marine science and policy. In May, the White House announced the appointment of Spinrad as the chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He will take a leave of absence from his position as a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.