With Federal Support Flat, Science Looks to Crowdfunding

  • A screenshot from researcher Susan Nagel's experiment.com crowdfunding video. Her video attempts to explain to potential funders why her research on fracking chemicals is important.

  • George Leikauf of the University of Pittsburgh is trying to help sequence a mouse genome through crowdfunding. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

November 21, 2014

Susan Nagel studies endocrine disruptors—chemicals that alter the body’s hormonal system. Last year, Susan Nagel, a women’s health scientist at the University of Missouri, found high levels of these chemicals in Colorado streams near where fracking spills had occurred.

“This was an initial study and we found this kind of strong association,” says Nagel.

But she wanted to go farther, and confirm her results by doing more testing. Her grant application with the National Institutes of Health, however, sat in limbo—for months.

So she turned to crowdfunding. Nagel set up a project page on the crowdfunding web site experiment.com, complete with a video explaining why her research on fracking chemicals is important.

“We spent a lot of time developing our site, developing a video, developing the content to be short, but explicit, to be understandable to a broad audience,” Nagel says.

It was probably more time than she thought she’d have to spend, but the campaign worked. She raised $25,000 and was able to begin a follow-up study.

Research like Nagel’s is the latest destination for online donors looking to back projects they like. With federal funding for science flagging, it’s seen as another potential pathway to getting scientific projects off the ground. In 2012, the National Science Foundation actually gave out less money than it had the year before, when inflation is accounted for.

“Agencies are having to turn down proposals which are scientifically meritorious,” says Kevin Crowston, program director for cyber human systems at the National Science Foundation. “I’ve heard some (scientist) express the feeling it’s like entering the lottery—it feels like a matter of luck as opposed to a matter of skill.”

INDIE CROSSOVER

Crowdfunding for science evolved out of the online fundraising format more often associated with the indie arts scene.

Brian Meece of the crowdfunder RocketHub says his site wasn’t originally set up for science. But during the Recession, friends in the sciences began calling him.

“And they said ‘Hey Brian, we see bands and filmmakers and artists on RocketHub. Do you think I could crowdfund my research in a similar fashion?’ And I thought ‘Yeah I think you could,’” Meece says.   

Meece says science projects that strike an emotional chord with their audience do better on his site.

“Research for animals, research for the environment, things that are curious, things that are quirky, things that are fun,” all do well, Meece says.

It helps if your project page has awesome pictures of sharks or jaguars and other big cats. But it doesn’t have to.

If the research is about a topic donors care about, it stands a good chance of success. George Leikauf is a University of Pittsburgh professor of environmental and occupational health with a crowdfunding campaign of his own to further his study of lung injury.

After he started fundraising for his own project, he began to fund others’ research as well. He’s funded neurobiological research, even though that isn't his area of expertise. 

“I started funding some other projects that I thought were quite interesting, that I knew probably wouldn’t get funded by the NIH, but were just exciting science,” Leikauf says.

The crowd has launched hundreds of small-scale and pilot projects. And some are setting their sights higher—one group is actually looking to crowdfund a mission to the moon.

QUESTIONS EMERGE

But National Science Foundation’s Kevin Crowston said crowdfunding is small potatoes compared to the $32 billion federal research budget for basic science.

Crowston, who is also a professor of information science at Syracuse University, says these projects glide over peer review, a key element of federal science funding. Whenever the government gives out a grant, panels of experts peer review each application.

“You really need an expert to be able to look at that and say well, this really is new and interesting or in fact, this is like something that’s already been done,” Crowston says.

Crowdfunders say they’re aware of these problems, and are working on potential solutions.

Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of SciFund Challenge, says his site vets potential projects to ensure the people behind them aren't—well, crazy.

“Basically we’re trying to screen out cranks—that you’re not writing in crayon,” Ranganathan says. 

Ranganathan says it isn’t just panda bears and sexy topics like fracking that gain traction on his site. He points to a project from the site’s other co-founder Jarett Byrnes. His project was to collect data to calibrate statistical models.

“Now that’s pretty esoteric,” Ranganathan says. “And yet he raised several thousands of dollars” for the project.

The key was that Byrnes worked hard to engage with his online audience.

Ranganathan says crowdfunding can help fill in some gaps in federal science funding. But in the end, they’re no real match for the biggest crowd of all—taxpayers.