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Monday, November 21, 2011

Pay for a little bit of science via ‘crowd-funding’

David Brooks

If you’re reading this, you’re a fan of science, but do you put your money where your fandom is?

You read about science, you talk about science, maybe you volunteer on a “citizen science” project like the New Hampshire Dragonfly Survey or GalaxyZoo, in which amateurs categorize pictures of stellar objects to help astronomers make sense of the universe. But you haven’t helped pay for science.

Now you can. (So can I, for that matter.)

In the latest extension of the online world’s ability to connect far-flung people with common interests, a couple of postdoctoral fellows at the National Center for Ecological Analysis in California have launched SciFund Challenge, an experiment in “crowd-funding” science.

The idea is to get lots of people to chip in a little bit of money each to pay for a project for a researcher.

That’s researchers like Chip Cochran, a native of Claremont who is studying rattlesnake venom in a masters program at Loma Linda University in California, in hopes of developing more effective anti-venoms or other disease cures.

“Science funding has been kind of cut in recent years, and people are trying to fund their projects in new ways,” said Cochran in a telephone interview last week.

As of Friday, donors had pledged $1,796, or one-seventh of Cochran’s $12,000 project goal. If he gets the money, it will buy some equipment and pay for lab work and travel expenses (gas, food) so he can drive through several Western states, “stopping in various mountain ranges where I will capture southwestern speckled rattlesnakes and collect venom and blood samples from them.”

Chasing rattlesnakes so you can take their blood! Those scientists sure know how to have fun.

Cochran is one of 49 researchers who are seeking money through the online effort, which runs until mid-December as part of crowd-funding site RocketHub.

As of last week, four researchers had reached or exceeded their goals and several others were getting close. (None is from New Hampshire, which might partly be a function of SciFund’s West Coast roots.)

RocketHub has been around for several years, doing crowd-funding for art projects – indie films, folk singers, performance art (whatever that is) and the like. It has a pretty high profile as these things go, so it was an obvious target when Jai Ranganathan and Jarrett Byrnes, ecologists active in the online science scene via blogs and podcasts, decided that science could benefit from crowd-funding.

Briance Meece, co-founder of RocketHub, said he jumped at the idea.

“I thought this is going to be really cool – not just raise funds for science, but also open up the curtain about what’s happening in science,” Meece said.

From my point of view, that last statement is the best part of SciFund.

“When scientists do outreach, it’s typically unpaid, not part of their job,” said SciFund co-founder Byrnes, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis in California. “This give scientists the incentive to do that outreach. It makes it a normal and professionally advantageous part of a science career.”

Each proposal includes videos, blogs and descriptions that are fun to read, unlike research journals.

“Scientists sometimes sit in little ivory towers, and don’t want to talk a lot in non-technical terms,” said Cochran, the rattlesnake-chaser. “This forces you to describe your project so that various groups of people can see what you’re doing and get interested.”

The money isn’t overwhelming: SciFund Challenge is nearing a grand total of $60,000 as I write this, which wouldn’t even make up a single National Science Foundation grant. But the process is the point, and it seems to be succeeding.

Many of the proposals promise that they’ll keep in touch with donors as the project goes on, updating them on the realities of data-gathering, hypothesis testing, and using grad students as lab rats.

In this era of science bashing and sneering at “so-called experts,” anything that lets the unwashed masses (e.g., you and me) get a better view of real research is welcome.

Crowd-funding has its drawbacks, of course. Scientists already resent hours spent filling out grant applications and pitching to committees; many will balk if told they have to start generating a good Twitter feed and regularly upload cell-phone videos from the field.

It also favors fields with easy public appeal, regardless of scientific value.

SciFund Challenge set up a peer-review process for proposals (via a wiki, of course) to maintain standards. But most of the projects are the sort of thing you see on “National Geographic” specials, about turtles or elephants or coral reefs. A couple of less photogenic topics show up – seismic monitors, the genetics of bacteria movement, mathematically modeling protest movements – but this is never going to be a way to support the breadth of modern science.

Still, it’s a wonderful addition to the ecosystem of modern science.

As for me, I’m sending $50 to a Stanford Ph.D. candidate who has asked a very interesting question: Do automated camera traps in the wild affect the behavior of the animals they are trying to study?

These cameras, usually mounted on trees and triggered by infrared beams, are used by wildlife biologists, hunters, and outdoor fans to get a sense of what’s wandering around when we aren’t there. Yet, as the project proposal notes, “there has been next to no research regarding the response of wildlife to the technology itself (which often assumed to be negligible or non-existent)! In a previous study, using an older generation of camera trapping systems, I found that deer significantly change their behavior when the camera traps were present.”

I’ll be fascinated to see what the answer is.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or