A still from a video introducing the crowdfunding campaign for the trial.

A still from a video introducing the crowdfunding campaign for the trial.

Walacea

Pedophile drug trial extends crowdfunding effort after falling short

Swedish researchers hoping to raise funds to conduct a trial of a potential drug to treat pedophilia have fallen short of their initial crowdfunding target. But they are now planning to extend the fundraising effort, and say that the study, which aims to assess whether a prostate cancer drug could help prevent pedophiles from acting on their impulses, will move ahead. They hope to complete the trial in 2 to 3 years, says project leader Christoffer Rahm, a psychiatric researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

The initial fundraising campaign on the website Walacea draws to a close on 7 May, and so far the research team has collected just 5% of the £38,000 ($55,700) it aimed to raise. Rahm says he was hoping to use some of this money to fund the work of a Ph.D. student, but now plans to do the bulk of the work himself. In the meantime, they will extend their fundraising effort (but have set no new deadline).

The study, dubbed Priotab (Pedophilia at Risk-Investigations of Treatment or Biomarkers), has been approved by Swedish regulators. It has already enrolled a few participants: men who have sought help to deal with their pedophilic impulses. Instead of treating people who have committed offenses, Priotab wants to assess whether the drug, which lowers testosterone levels in the body, can prevent child abuse from happening in the first place.

It is hard to tell to what extent the sensitivity of the research topic contributed to the disappointing result, Rahm says. In hindsight, such crowdfunding campaigns “should be planned with PR [public relations] specialists,” he suggests. “You have to change your strategy from normal grant applications.”

The proportion of people who reached the page and decided to fund the project is “slightly lower” than, but comparable to, the response to other projects on Walacea, says the website's founder, Natalie Jonk. “But getting people to the page [might be] harder because of the subject area,” she suggests.

Although the project was covered widely in mainstream news outlets, Jonk notes that the campaign was poorly relayed through social media such as Facebook and Twitter, possibly because people didn't feel comfortable sharing content related to pedophilia on these public platforms. In contrast, another Walacea campain for an imaging study of the brain on LSD attracted more than £53,000 ($77,000), more than twice its funding target; most of the traffic to this campaign page came from social media.

One of Priotab's 64 backers so far is Jonas Bjärehed, a psychology researcher at Lund University in Sweden. He contributed £100 ($146) to the study, which he saw presented at a research conference on child sexual abuse.

Bjärehed says he decided to fund the project because he believes the ultimate goal is worthwhile. “It’s not every day that you, personally, have a chance to do something to [potentially] reduce the risk that a child will be sexually abused,” he says, adding that it might be difficult to get research funding through traditional channels for such controversial research questions.

“I can't really say that I’m surprised by the [campaign's] outcome, as I don’t think crowdfunding of research has really caught on yet,” he says. “I do hope the project will reach its goal however, and do believe that many people would be willing to contribute if they [understood better] the project and its background.”

“It's such a pity,” says Sarah Goode, acting CEO of the U.K. nonprofit Specialist Treatment Organisation for the Prevention of Sexual Offending in Kingston upon Thames. Although Goode supported the Priotab funding campaign, she says it lacked a good communications plan. Some may interpret the campaign's failure as a sign “society is not ready for this, but I think society is ready” for studies of preventive approaches, says Goode, a sociologist and author of two academic books on pedophiles in society.

Despite its poor outcome, Rahm says the campaign has had positive effects that he “couldn't even imagine” before starting it. “It has helped me to meet new people, to think about the project differently, to describe my work in sound bites, to explain why it’s important and new,” he says. Rahm adds that the public exposure from the campaign may make it easier for him, a junior researcher without his own research group, to convince traditional funders to back his project. And he says other researchers should consider crowdfunding for their own work. But he recommends “that they collaborate with PR specialists” to plan their campaign.

Update, 5/3/2016, 1:05p.m.: This story has been updated to include the information that the researchers intend to extend their crowdfunding campaign.