Crowds are common at rock concerts, basketball games, and scientific research proposals. Wait — what? In The New York Times this week, there’s an interesting story about scientists looking for funding in creative ways:
As research budgets tighten at universities and federal financing agencies, a new crop of Web-savvy scientists is hoping the wisdom — and generosity — of the crowds will come to the rescue. While nonprofit science organizations and medical research centers commonly seek donations from the public, Dr. [Jennifer] Calkins, an adjunct professor of biology at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and Dr. [Jennifer] Gee may have been the first professional scientists to use a generic “crowd funding” Web site to underwrite basic research.
In May 2010, neither had the principal investigator status required to apply through their institutions for a National Science Foundation grant. But they were eager to begin collecting data about the behavior, appearance, distribution, habitat selection and phylogenic position of the least-studied quail species in the Callipepla genus.
Dr. Calkins, who has published research papers and poetry, turned to the community of artists and microphilanthropists at Kickstarter.com. Her plea to potential backers on the site: “By contributing to this project you will support a study of this little known species as we examine its behavior and evolution in its natural habitat, a space encroached upon by both urban sprawl and tension surrounding narcotics trafficking.”
Web sites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and RocketHub are an increasingly popular way to bankroll creative projects — usually in film, music and visual arts. It is not very likely that anyone imagined they would be used to finance scientific research. And it is unclear what problems this odd pairing might beget.
The article goes on to discuss Dr. Andrea Gaggioli’s project for peer-reviewed crowdsource-funded science, and crowdsourcing in Cancer Research UK.
Not to get overeager, it’s clear not all science funding can work this way:
It’s too soon to tell how widespread science crowd funding will become. Would a geology project on organic sedimentary rocks, for example, open as many wallets as the charismatic quail?
But this kind of approach might be suitable for those projects that need a little bit of funding to get going:
The success of the Calkins-Gee quail project inspired Alison Styring, a member of Evergreen’s environmental studies faculty, to submit a Kickstarter proposal titled “Mapping the Bornean Soundscape.”
“It’s getting harder and harder to get funding,” said Dr. Styring, who hopes to raise $15,000 to record the sounds of Tawau Hills Park in Malaysian Borneo and study birds there.
Saddled with a busy teaching schedule, Dr. Styring was writing student evaluations in January when the last National Science Foundation grant deadline came and went. Relatively low-cost field projects like hers, she said, are not typically financed by the foundation. But Dr. Styring was not sure if crowd funding would work for her or what rewards to offer as an incentive to potential donors. “Maybe musicians could use the sounds,” she said.