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Scientists turn to crowdfunding sites for research money

Reid Frazier
Allegheny Front
George Leikauf of the University of Pittsburgh is trying to help sequence a mouse genome through crowdfunding.

Federal spending on scientific research hasn’t kept up with inflation in recent years, and it’s made it harder for researchers to fund their work. Some of them are turning to another source: crowdfunding. But this funding source raises new questions for scientists.  

Susan Nagel, a researcher at the University of Missouri, studies the health impacts of chemicals used in fracking. Last year, she found remnants of these chemicals in Colorado streams near where fracking spills had occurred. 

“So, 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 with 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 website experiment.com, complete with a video explaining why her research on fracking chemicals is important.

It 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.

What makes a project a good candidate for crowdfunding?

"And [my scientist friends] 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.’ ” — Brian Meece, RocketHub founder.

Brian Meece of the crowdfunder RocketHub says his site wasn’t 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 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.”

It helps if your project page has awesome pictures of dinosaurs or jaguars.

Or if it’s about a topic donors care about. George Leikauf is a University of Pittsburgh molecular biologist with a crowdfunding campaign of his own. However, he also donates to projects outside his area of expertise.

“Since I got into this I started funding some other projects, as well, that I thought were quite interesting; that I knew that probably wouldn’t get funded by the NIH —but were just exciting science,” he says.

Crowdfunding sites have 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

But who's peer-reviewing?

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

Crowston also warns these projects tend to skip one key step. When the federal government gives out a grant, panels of experts peer-review each application. It’s not really like that when the crowd decides on a proposal. 

“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,” he says.

But crowdfunders may have a partial answer for this problem. 

Jai Ranganathan is a conservation biologist who co-founded SciFundChallenge.org. His site vets potential projects to ensure the people behind them aren't — well, totally crazy. 

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

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.

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