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Going Online for Research Funding

CREDIT: Microsoft

With funding rates at major granting agencies at historic lows, some researchers are taking a digital-age approach to financing their projects: appealing directly to the public for donations. On the model of Kickstarter, a Web site that pioneered use of the Internet to "pass the hat" in support of cultural and arts projects, several Web sites are now doing the same for scientists. Sites that provide a place for scientists to pitch their projects to potential donors include iAMscientist, Microryza, Petridish, and FundaGeek.

Thanks in part to money raised on iAMscientist, two biologists at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, are now investigating the effects of gas shale hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") on the ecology of local streams, reports Inside Higher Ed. The ironically named Christopher Grant, an assistant research professor, and assistant professor Regina Lamendella used the site to collect $10,800 to continue a project that was running low on money. (See our recent profile of Ethan Perlstein, who used RocketHub to fund a "meth lab" during a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton—and then went totally rogue. Also see "Asking the Public for Money," and this compelling riff on the crowd-funding theme. )

Are these the beginnings of a less elitist, more populist science?

Crowd-funding offers an alternate route to  potential funders, but it's not necessarily an easier route, warns Rachel Wheat of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and coauthors, in an article in Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Those Internet sites provide a mechanism for displaying your idea and collecting money—but getting people to pay attention (and, more importantly, to pay money) requires work. "The central element of a successful science crowdfunding campaign is developing a crowd: a set of people engaged with a scientist and their research," Wheat and co-authors write. "Consequently, outreach is essential to science crowdfunding, with the outreach demands being far greater than what is generally expected by traditional grant-making agencies." It takes a lot of time and effort and a wholly different set of skills from those needed to impress a federal grant-review panel.

But the results can be worth the extra work, the authors believe. The money is nice, but it isn't big. "Crowdfunding can serve fundraising needs for both new and established scientists. Current science crowdfunding efforts typically raise less than $10 000 per fundraising campaign …, an ideal amount for funding a pilot study, purchasing equipment for an existing study, or a summer of graduate student research. However, several lines of evidence suggest that this $10 000 ceiling can be surpassed. … "

But the potential benefits go well beyond the money, the authors claim. "The true potential of crowdfunding lies not in raising funds for conducting research, but in the opportunities for public outreach and science education engendered by this type of funding model. Presently, the great majority of research never reaches a broader audience, contributing to the mistrust and misunderstanding of science among the general public. Crowdfunding, however, has the potential to shift this paradigm by encouraging scientific transparency and public involvement in the earliest stages of the research process and fostering lasting ties between scientists and nonscientists," they continue.  And as already noted, those ties can prove useful in future fundraising campaigns.

Are these the beginnings of a less elitist, more populist science? The Internet has changed the economic bases of a number of industries, but it's way too early to know whether something similar could happen in science. If crowd-funding by individual researchers were ever to become a significant source of support for science, it could reduce the power of funding agencies, and of traditional peer review, over decisions about who and what get funded. Whether you see that as a welcome liberation from the iron grip of the scientific establishment or a weakening of essential scientific institutions depends on how much you respect the current system and, perhaps, which side you're on of the have/have-not line.

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