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Scientists discover ‘crowdfunding’ as a way of replacing research grants

- - 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.

"There is a crisis that is the huge gap between science and society. For most people, it might as well be black magic," he said. "The power of science crowdfunding is that it provides a new argument to the mix, and the argument is money."

Mr. Ranganathan said that there should be a balance between government funding and crowdfunding. He said the two should be complimentary, giving the government the priority it has to engage with people. The key challenge for crowdfunding science is the screening and protocols to make sure the proposals are worthy and not fraudulent.

"All projects that go through SciFund go through a peer review, to make sure that it is real science," Mr. Ranganathan said.

Providing a platform

At the crowdfunding site Microryza, co-founders Cindy Wu and Denny Luan provide a platform for researchers and projects that allow anyone in the world to contribute.

"We built this platform out of a need that we found ourselves," Mr. Luan said. "We felt that we could fill a gap that a lot of scientists need."

Ms. Wu and Mr. Luan both came from research backgrounds and, after finding it difficult to obtain funding, they founded Microryza, which has provided backing for more than 40 projects with a total of $350,000.

Researchers for Microryza begin projects with an explanation, as well as a goal for how much money they are working toward and a time limit to reach their goal. The site takes a 5 percent cut of what is raised, and each project gets funding only if the goal is met.

Mr. Luan has put his passion into helping projects succeed. His own email signature reads: "Not stopping until we fund the cure for cancer, an intergalactic photon rocket, and a time machine."

One project on the site is an online sexual health curriculum in rural North Carolina high schools, founded by Elizabeth Chen and Vichi Jagannathan, who have a pledged total of $25,129 toward their project. The 2010 Princeton graduates and Teach for America volunteers want to create MyHealthEd, a "tailored online sexual health curriculum that increases sexual health knowledge and decreases risky sexual behaviors among middle and high school students in rural North Carolina, thereby decreasing rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases," according to their Microryza site.

MyHealthEd will generate a curriculum tailored to each student's need, and the prototype should be ready in five rural public schools by January. Ms. Chen, in an article posted on womenadvancenc.org, explained that "it has been difficult to find funding to support our research. Our goal is to publish our data online, using the open-access forum platform crowdfunding site Microryza provides."

This new self-funding approach comes with risks, including the basic failure to attract enough capital to succeed. Most of these sites have an "all-or-nothing" policy, which means no money is allotted until the total funding goal is met.