As funding drops, scientists turn to the crowd

Reid R. Frazier Jan 1, 2015
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As funding drops, scientists turn to the crowd

Reid R. Frazier Jan 1, 2015
HTML EMBED:
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Susan Nagel from the University of Missouri studies the health impacts of chemicals used in fracking. Last year, Nagel found remnants of fracking chemicals in Colorado streams near locations of previous fracking spills.

“This was an initial study, and we found this kind of strong association,” Nagel says. 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 site experiment.com

“We spent a lot of time on the actual site, developing a video, developing the content to be short but explicit, to be understandable to a broad audience,” Nagel says.

It worked.

Nagel raised $25,000 for a follow-up study. Research like hers is the latest destination for online donors looking to back projects they like. Brian Meece of the crowdfunder RocketHub says science that strikes an emotional chord does better on his site. “Research for animals, research for the environment … things that are curious, things that are quirky, things that are fun” all do well, Meece says.

It helps if your page has captivating pictures of sharks or jaguars on it, or if the research is about a topic donors care about. With federal funding for science flat or falling behind inflation in recent years, more scientists are trying out crowdfunding.

The crowd has launched hundreds of small-scale science projects, but there are potential problems. When the federal government decides whether to fund a grant, panels of experts peer-review each application. The National Science Foundation’s Kevin Crowston says it’s not like that when the crowd is the judge.

“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,’” Crowston says.

Jai Ranganathan, a co-founder of the crowdfunding web site scifundchallenge.org, says his site vets 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 fill in some gaps in federal funding, Ranganathan says. But in the end, it’s no match for the biggest crowd of all – taxpayers.

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