July 14, 2024

Scientists Turn to Crowds on the Web to Finance Their Projects

The $4,873 they raised, mostly from small donations, will pay their travel, food, lab and equipment expenses to study the elegant quail this fall in Mexico.

“Each radio transmitter costs $135,” said Dr. Gee, interim manager of the Robert J. Bernard Biological Field Station in Claremont, Calif. “The receiver used to track birds is $1,000 to $2,000.”

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. Calkins, an adjunct professor of biology at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and Dr. 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.

Most crowd funding platforms thrive on transparency and a healthy dose of self-promotion but lack the safeguards and expert assessment of a traditional review process. Instead, money talks: The public decides which projects are worth pursuing by fully financing them. Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut when those projects meet or exceed their fund-raising goals. When pledges fall short of a goal, donors pay nothing. The money can come from anywhere — the biggest backers of the quail project were ranchers and hunters.

“Both of us had some hesitation,” Dr. Gee said. “We were sort of afraid we’d lose some legitimacy in the eyes of other scientists. It’s not a peer-reviewed process. I was just ready to do anything it took to do my research.”

For Dr. Calkins and Dr. Gee, who received their Ph.D.’s in 2001 and 2003, respectively, crowd funding is just one more way to scrape together a patchwork of funding and incremental bits of research aimed at larger goals. “I have had to be opportunistic about keeping my research going,” Dr. Gee wrote in an e-mail. “I collect data guerrilla style — when and where I can! I think my story is typical.”

Ten years ago, Andrea Gaggioli wanted to conduct research on virtual reality and neural rehabilitation. But, he said, “in Italy it’s almost impossible to get funded if you are under 30.”

Now 37 and a psychology and technology researcher at Catholic University of Milan, Dr. Gaggioli talks to anyone who will listen about his Open Genius Project, a crowd funding initiative he hopes will provide seed money for breakthrough research. Dr. Gaggioli plans to set up a peer review process to “separate garbage from good science.” But his crowd funding dream itself needs funds before it can begin accepting proposals.

“I think people will invest in projects that are carried out by young people who have no other possibilities to put forward their ideas,” Dr. Gaggioli said.

Cancer Research UK, a London-based charity, took a Web page from the microfinance site Kiva when it started its MyProjects initiative in September 2008. “The basic premise was to let people choose which cancers they want to beat,” said Ryan Bromley, the charity’s online communities manager.

In the crowd funding genus, MyProjects is a different species from Kickstarter. All projects on the site have been vetted by scientists and already receive financing from Cancer Research UK. And the funds are guaranteed regardless of whether the MyProjects goal is reached. Mr. Bromley calls it “substitutional funding.”

“We’re trying to attract people to fund-raise in a different way that we haven’t done before,” he said.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=545dd4a50c24d8ce2cc8f10a31489f47

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