Funding a technological revolution: who pays for what CRISPR research?

Published in Microbiology
Funding a technological revolution: who pays for what CRISPR research?
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MIT Press
MIT Press MIT Press

Funding CRISPR: Understanding the role of government and philanthropic institutions in supporting academic research within the CRISPR innovation system

Abstract. CRISPR/Cas has the potential to revolutionize medicine, agriculture, and biology. Understanding the trajectory of CRISPR research, how it is influenced, and who pays for it is an essential research policy question. We use a combination of methods to map, via quantitative content analysis of CRISPR papers, the research funding profile of major government agencies and philanthropic organizations and the networks involved in supporting key stages of high-influence research, namely, basic biological research and technological development. The results of the content analysis show how the research supported by the main U.S. government agencies focuses both on the study of CRISPR as a biological phenomenon and on its technological development and use as a biomedical research tool. U.S. philanthropic organizations, with the exception of HHMI, tend, by contrast, to specialize in funding CRISPR as a genome editing technology. We present a model of cofunding networks at the two most prominent institutions for CRISPR/Cas research (the University of California system and the Broad/Harvard/MIT system) to illuminate how philanthropic organizations have articulated with government agencies to cofinance the discovery and development of CRISPR/Cas. Our results raise fundamental questions about the role of the state and the influence of philanthropy over the trajectory of transformative technologies.

When reading a scientific manuscript, does your reading include the section of acknowledgments, funding or the declaration of conflict of interest? The acknowledgments section could contain, for example, information about whether a research has been funded by a pharmaceutical company, a philanthropic foundation or a government agency, or by a combination of different funding sources. At the level of an individual reading it could be useful for researchers to get an idea of ​​which organizations might be interested in funding their research projects.

When the metadata contained in the declaration of interests is collected, processed and analyzed, it acquires a greater value. A charitable organization may be interested, for example, in having a detailed mapping of breast cancer research funding, to identify underserved areas or possibilities for collaboration with other organizations. Institutions interested in promoting inclusion and equity might be interested in combining, for example, the information from the metadata and determining whether or not the percentage of women and minorities that are funded by certain funding sources has grown over time. In my case, I am interested in knowing if different sources of financing support different stages of the development trajectories of CRISPR gene-editing technologies. That is, I investigate what kind of organizations finance the discovery, application or improvements of CRISPR technologies.

CRISPR technologies have a huge potential impact on society and nature considering the large number of applications that are being developed in areas such as biomedicine, agriculture, livestock, pest control and industrial biotechnology. Given the profound impacts that these technologies can have on people's lives, it is important to closely monitor the development and applications of these technologies and pay attention to who is paying for which developments, which applications and at what stages.

My research team and I look at funding for research and development from three complementary perspectives: 1) funding for research communities specialized in specific areas of development and application; 2) the CRISPR funding profile of the main government agencies and philanthropic organizations in the United States, and 3) the articulation of co-financing networks to the two main institutions where the discovery and development of CRISPR technologies took place: the University of California and the Broad Institute.

Our results published in the journals PLOS ONE* and Quantitative Science Studies** tell us an important, if incomplete, part of the CRISPR research funding story:

  1. The discovery stage of CRISPR that goes from its study as a biological phenomenon to its conception as a mechanism that can be used as a genomic editing tool took place mainly in American universities with public funding from federal agencies such as the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
  2. The incremental improvement stage - that is, research on alternative, more efficient, versatile or user-friendly CRISPR genomic editing systems, or research aimed at overcoming technical difficulties in applying the technology in different organisms - continued to be funded by federal agencies but now with the participation of philanthropic foundations articulated in co-financing networks.
  3. Research around the application of CRISPR technologies in livestock, agriculture, pest control or industrial biotechnology is mainly funded by Chinese state institutions, while funding for the application of CRISPR in biomedicine is shared between Chinese government agencies and Americans.

There is a lot to investigate to get the full picture and I hope the reader will be left wanting to know more. Below I list the two articles that I have published so far on the subject. There is much to know. Among other things, we need to investigate the role of for-profit organizations in financing research and development of CRISPR technologies. It is also important to know in detail the structure of the intellectual property of these technologies on a global scale. In general, in order for CRISPR technologies to be a democratizing factor of science and society, it is important to have in-depth knowledge of who finances what technological research and development, who generates what knowledge and technologies, who possesses what technologies and who is benefited and who does not.

I hope to arouse the metascientific curiosity of my scientific colleagues in the field of microbiology.

* Fajardo-Ortiz D, Shattuck A, Hornbostel S. Mapping the coevolution, leadership and financing of research on viral vectors, RNAi, CRISPR/Cas9 and other genomic editing technologies. PloS one. 2020 Apr 15;15(4):e0227593.

** Fajardo-Ortiz D, Hornbostel S, Montenegro de Wit M, Shattuck A. Funding CRISPR: Understanding the role of government and philanthropic institutions in supporting academic research within the CRISPR innovation system. Quantitative Science Studies. 2022 Jun 22;3(2):443-56.

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