Crowd-funding science

As research budgets tighten at US universities and financing agencies,scientists turn to the Web to raise research funds.

Written by New York Times | Published: July 17, 2011 3:31:15 am

THOMAS LIN

In January,a time when many scientists concentrate on grant proposals,Jennifer D. Calkins and Jennifer M. Gee,both biologists,were busy designing quail T-shirts and trading cards. The T-shirts went for $12 each and the trading cards for $15 in a fundraising effort resembling an online bake sale.

The $4,873 they raised,mostly from small donations,will pay their travel,food,lab and equipment expenses to study the elegant quail this fall in Mexico. “Each radio transmitter costs $135,” said Gee,interim manager of the Robert J. Bernard Biological Field Station in Claremont,California. “The receiver used to track birds is $1,000 to $2,000.”

As research budgets tighten at US universities and federal financing agencies,a new crop of Web-savvy scientists is hoping the wisdom—and generosity—of the crowds will come to the rescue. While nonprofit science organisations and medical research centres commonly seek donations from the public,Calkins,an adjunct professor of biology at Evergreen State College in Olympia,Washington,and Gee may have been the first professional scientists to use a generic “crowd funding” website to underwrite basic research. In May 2010,neither had the principal investigator status required to apply through their institutions for a National Science Foundation grant. But they were eager to begin collecting data about the behaviour,appearance,distribution,habitat selection and phylogenic position of the least-studied quail species in the Callipepla genus.

Calkins,who has published research papers and poetry,turned to the community of artists and microphilanthropists at Kickstarter.com. Websites like Kickstarter,IndieGoGo and RocketHub are an increasingly popular way to bankroll creative projects—usually in film,music and visual arts. It is not very likely that anyone imagined they would be used to finance scientific research.

“Both of us had some hesitation,” Gee said. “We were sort of afraid we’d lose some legitimacy in the eyes of other scientists. It’s not a peer-reviewed process. I was just ready to do anything it took to do my research.”

Ten years ago,Andrea Gaggioli wanted to conduct research on virtual reality and neural rehabilitation. But,he said,“in Italy it’s almost impossible to get funded if you are under 30.” Now 37 and a psychology and technology researcher at Catholic University of Milan,Gaggioli talks to anyone who will listen about his Open Genius Project,a crowd funding initiative he hopes will provide seed money for breakthrough research. Gaggioli plans to set up a peer review process to “separate garbage from good science”. But his crowd funding dream itself needs funds before it can begin accepting proposals.

Cancer Research UK,a London-based charity,took a Web page from the microfinance site Kiva when it started its MyProjects initiative in September 2008. “The basic premise was to let people choose which cancers they want to beat,” said Ryan Bromley,the charity’s online communities manager. In the crowd funding genus,MyProjects is a different species from Kickstarter. All projects on the site have been vetted by scientists and already receive financing from Cancer Research UK. And the funds are guaranteed regardless of whether the MyProjects goal is reached. Bromley calls it “substitutional funding”.

The $1.3 million that MyProjects has raised since 2008 is a tiny fraction of the $534 million the parent charity gave to cancer researchers in the 2009-10 fiscal year alone. There are currently 28 projects on the site,with an emphasis on the most common cancers: breast,lung and prostate. But the site is continuing to adapt and grow. All said and done,however,it’s too soon to tell how widespread science crowd funding will become.

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