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X Crowdfunding science gets personal

The last few weeks have seen a lot of discussion about how science and academia have become increasingly disconnected from the lay public. Nature’s Soapbox Science blog started the ball rolling with a series of posts highlighting the problems scientists face when communicating their work through the mainstream media, and showcasing a couple of great examples of effective science outreach.

And then SoNYC (Science Online NYC) took the reigns and hosted a live discussion on the topic, which really got everyones juices flowing, not only in the room but also on the web.

As an active participant in this debate, it seems to me that the main conclusions were as follows:

1. Scientists are VERY busy people, so asking them to take full responsibility for communicating science is bananas. Universities and other research institutes need to take notice of this fact and hire science communication professionals.

2. Despite being VERY busy people, scientists should not be afraid to open up and embrace social media. Sites like Twitter are often over-looked as sources of support, information, and, on occasion, much needed funding.

3. Science education in the U.S. is pretty terrible, and without an improvement in general science literacy this will be a steeply uphill battle.

4. Scientists who do engage in outreach activities should be applauded not derided. The current funding and tenure model relies on publication, publication, publication, forcing many young investigators to forgo any kind of outreach just to ensure their own job security.

5. Open access to publicly funded research will do wonders for the image of science, as currently it is generally seen as a closed off an elitest world.

Enter Crowdfunding

So, it was with all of these ideas swirling through my mind that I chatted to Matt Salzberg, ex-venture capitalist, science enthusiast, and founder of Matt’s website, if you haven’t heard about it before, is a wonderful place. In the way that Kickstarter and Groupon have changed the way creative projects are funded, Petridish is changing the way science is paid for. Researchers submit their project, post a video, set a monetary goal, and offer rewards to donors.

But it’s so much more than that. Because the crowdfunding model, by definition, has to appeal to a large number of people to be effective, researchers are forced to communicate their goals in clear and persuasive language. “In terms of what scientists can do get their projects funded, there are a couple of different things to consider.” says Matt. “1. How interesting is your project? Is it something that will really excite people? 2. How authentic is your excitement for the project? The excitement of the researcher and the passion for their research is really contagious. So people get excited when researchers get excited and can make a personal connection to the researcher.”

With the average donation coming in to Petridish currently sitting at around $70, it is clear that at least for the moment only certain types of research are likely to get funded. That said, since its launch in early March of this year, Petridish has funded 80% of all projects posted on the site. Matt notes: “We like to think that now we’re operating very healthily in the $10,000-$15,000 project size. But we hope to be doing projects within the next year around the $100,000 range, with the goal of being able to do larger than that over time.”

As I was perusing the site, I noticed that a lot of the projects that were fully funded featured pictures of cute animals. Hmm, thought I. What does this mean for basic science? Matt? “Quite frankly I don’t think it’s the fact that the animals are cute that’s helping get the project funded, I think that ecology and field science-type projects tend to be a good fit for what we’re doing. That’s partly because 1. They don’t require exorbitant amounts of money to do good science, so it’s a good fit for what we do. 2. They’re underfunded relative to other areas of science. 3. Beyond the cute animals, there’s more of a natural reward element where you can offer items from the field, or photographs, or things like that that are more tangible.”

A success story

Searching for exomoons
Searching for exomoons

In fact, one of the biggest success stories from the early days of Petridish is that of David Kipping, who is neither a cute animal, nor does he work with cute animals (as far as I know). Kipping needed $10,000 to buy a supercomputer to analyze data from the Kepler telescope. He was searching for exomoons (moons orbiting planets outside of our own solar system), but instead found a new planet. The results of his work have subsequently been published on one of the most prestigious scientific journals out there, Science. But that wasn’t even the bast part: “Some of the supporters on Petridish got an inside look at the research ahead of time. He broke the news the night before to all his supporters, which was really cool.”

Absolutely! Not only are Petridish donors funding important work, they are being treated as the indispensable investors that they are. Researchers are offering some really cool rewards to their suporters, including trips into the field to see exactly how their science is done.

Listening for Cancer
Listening for Cancer

What can you do to get involved?

There are some really fantastic projects up on the site at the moment that need investors! One that grabbed my attention is “Listening for cancer: Early Detection using laser ultrasound”. John Viator is looking for money to help move his project, a blood test for recurring malignant melanoma, from the lab to the clinic. But don’t listen to me, go check out his pitch, and, if you donate, you get one of your own rec blood cells embedded in plastic. Ooooooo!

And if that doesn’t float your boat, maybe you’d like to support Brenda Larison investigate how Zebras got their stripes. Or any of the other fab projects that are being proposed. While you’re there, sign up to join the thousands-strong email list to get up-to-date info on new projects, and perhaps even use your social network to spread the word.

Organizations like Petridish are really exemplifying how we can solve the problems I listed above. Matt Salzberg is giving scientists a platform on which to engage with the public and fund their science with outreach. Perhaps we are on the road to uncoupling a successful career in science from the current publish or perish model. And even if we aren’t, surely these efforts, running parallel to the current bureaucratic system, will help speed the recovery of the image and accessibility of science.


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