It’s a not-very-well-kept secret in the realm of science: when it comes to producing world-class research, the U.S. is losing its edge because of belt-tightening that’s limiting medical innovation, says Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The agency’s budget of around $30 billion is up from 2004’s $28 billion in nominal dollars–but when adjusted for the inflation in cost for medical research, the current budget reflects a drop of nearly 25% in purchasing power. “We have investigators in the U.S. who have great ideas, talent, creativity and energy who are frankly at the point of giving up,” says Collins. “That means all the talent and investment they represent is potentially being squandered.” The agency hopes President Obama’s 2016 budget proposal will pass, increasing NIH’s budget by $1 billion. But NIH isn’t the only group that’s been affected. The rate of growth in medical-research funds has dropped nearly 10% on an inflation-adjusted basis since 2004.
This innovation gap, nicknamed a “valley of death” by some in the field, has coincided with the launch of startups that rely on crowdfunding strategies to raise small amounts of cash from lots of different people instead of relying on hefty sums from one.
The website Experiment, for instance, collects donations for projects like developing a better eye prosthesis or finding effective drugs for hookworm–which raised more than $18,700. Consano, another crowdfunding site, is a nonprofit that’s popular with new scientists. And the newest research crowdfunder, Give to Cure (GTC), launched in November 2014 with a focus on clinical trials that may accelerate new-drug discovery.
Unlike other platforms that fund studies of all stripes at a given moment, GTC zeroes in on one disease at a time, and it’s starting with Alzheimer’s. Once GTC picks its area of focus, it invites scientists to submit clinical trials that have regulatory approval but no funding. Next, a scientific advisory committee picks the five most promising trials, and GTC begins raising cash. The hope is that funding numerous projects for the same disease will increase the chances of finding a cure.
The studies are also audited along the way so donors can see where their money has gone and keep tabs on the scientists’ progress.
Crowdfunding critics contend that these kinds of sites could result in funding only for “sexy” or widely understood and common diseases. But co-founder Lou Reese says the hope behind GTC and projects like it is to attract people with a personal attachment to a cause who want to see their donations go to specific research that might someday benefit their loved ones.
That’s in part what inspired Reese to pick Alzheimer’s as GTC’s first disease. “My grandmother died of it,” he says. “It was hard to watch her be robbed of what makes a person human. If we can nudge medical funding just a bit, we are going to be in a much better place.”
This appears in the February 16, 2015 issue of TIME.
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