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,
‘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.