- - Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Traditional scientific funding proposals typically do not ask donors to “crowdfund my meth lab, yo,” but then young scientist Ethan Perlstein isn’t taking the traditional route to underwrite his research.

Like an increasing number of scientists who have seen public grants and investments shrivel, Mr. Perlstein has broken away from traditional sources of scientific funding and turned to the Web, social media and “crowdfunding” to raise money for his efforts.

“Government grant funding system is pretty bleak” outside of the most promising proposals, Mr. Perlstein said. “Projects will get more success with how much energy researchers put into their campaign.”

Posting a detailed description of his research proposal on the crowdfunding website Rockethub.com, Mr. Perlstein raised $25,460 for his project on drug discovery. The pitch included a posting on his personal blog (perlsteinlab.com) titled “Crowdfund my meth lab, yo” to educate the public on his research and help his funding. The yearlong effort also has included Twitter and Facebook to get the word out.

The difficulties of raising funds for scientific research were underscored with the release last week of a poll of more than 3,700 front-line scientists conducted for the Rockville-based American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology on the impact of recent cuts in federal spending on scientific research. Sixteen scientific societies participated in the survey, which was conducted in June and July and involved scientists in all 50 states.

Among the findings: Just 2 percent of respondents say private money has been able to replace the decline in federal grants, nearly half of respondents say they have had to lay off researchers in the current funding climate, and more than two-thirds of those surveyed have had to postpone or cancel research work.

“The data show that deep cuts to federal investments in research are tearing at the fabric of the nation’s scientific enterprise and have a minimal impact on overcoming our national debt and deficit problems,” said Benjamin Corb, a spokesman for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Back to the future

In some ways, researchers like Mr. Perlstein are following in the footsteps of what were known as the pre-20th-century “gentleman scientists” such as Charles Darwin who were financially independent and pursued a particular study without any direct government aid. Researchers like Mr. Perlstein do not have a family fortune like Darwin’s, but he can use the Internet to reach out to funding sources.

Advocates say the revolution brings an unprecedented element of democracy into the backing of even the most refined, cutting-edge research.

“The most amazing thing about it all is that science can be funded by the people, by the 99 percent,” said Brian Meece, CEO of Rockethub.

Although Rockethub also provides funding for artists, entrepreneurs and community organizing groups, raising money for scientific research addresses a particularly acute area of need, Mr. Meece said. In the next five to 10 years, he said, more and more scientists will get their seed capital this way.

Mr. Perlstein tweeted that “crowdfunding is the gateway drug for independent scientists.”

However, crowdfunding and social media alone do not create science superstars overnight, said Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of SciFund Challenge, another science-oriented crowdfunding site.

Mr. Ranganathan is a conservation biologist and an associate at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Syntheses. He believes that what really matters is the size of the crowd, and that scientists need to engage their projects with people in order to succeed.

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