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Scientists calling on the crowd for funding - Crowdfunding Softlaunch

posted Oct 2, 2013, 2:05 PM by Unknown user   [ updated Oct 2, 2013, 2:05 PM ]

Before environmental biologist Kenly Hiller submitted her latest research proposal for funding, she sent it out for one final review. She wanted her grandmother’s opinion.

Hiller’s grandmother was the perfect critic — not because she is a scientific expert, but precisely because she is not.

Facing a stark federal budget to support scientific research, Hiller and other scientists have begun experimenting with crowdfunding their research. It is scientific funding for the social media age, with pitches made in brief videos, funders often kept updated on results through blogs, and the normally secretive “peer review” process used to vet proposals taking place in public as funders decide whether to contribute.

The results so far? Scientists who were used to turning to government agencies to fund their work are learning that friends, family, and strangers are willing to chip in small and large sums. They are finding that a wide range of projects can win support: A $1.5 million proposal to build and launch a telescope into space was backed by more than 17,000 people, and a master’s student at Antioch University New England raised $3,212 to test different baits used to attract cheetahs in the wild, so they can be tagged.

The most surprising insight may be that the outreach — explaining research and how it works to a general audience — is, itself, rewarding.

‘When you do this kind of thing, it makes you realize that people care about what you’re doing.’


  • “It’s cool, because as scientists we get really excited about our work,” Hiller said. “When you do this kind of thing, it makes you realize that people care about what you’re doing.”
  • Crowdfunding is probably best known for helping artists make albums or movies — tangible products that people are already familiar with paying for. But increasingly, scientists are posting basic research projects on general crowdfunding websites. Some science-specific sites are also emerging.
  • It is difficult to quantify the size of the nascent science niche, but it is tiny compared to the billions the federal government spends on energy, health, and basic science research. No one sees crowdfunding as replacing that critical source of funding, because it tends now to support pilot projects, with budgets of a few thousands dollars.
  • Ethan Perlstein, an independent scientist who raised $25,000 to support a research project and also serves as a consultant for the science-specific crowdfunding site, Microryza, said the websites seem to thrive best when they are founded by scientists with social networks they can tap and a deep understanding of the role the funding will play in the laboratory.


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