Spare change for science?

Change in a coffee cup

Scientists are learning the art of the online hustle as they turn to crowdfunding – a popular online fundraising method used by independent artists – to fund their research. In the process, it may shake up the science establishment.

Instead of applying for big endowments or research grants, scientists collect small donations from hundreds of people – the crowd – by pitching their projects online.

Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of the #SciFund Challenge crowdfunding campaign, said it’s part of a “secret mission.”

“Crowdfunding is not really about the money. The point is to connect scientists to society,” said Ranganathan, who is also a conservation biologist in Santa Barbara, Calif. “There’s just this gap between scientists and everyone else, which makes for a society that is less well-off.”

More than $76,000 was raised for 49 projects in the first round, including research on domesticating algae and exploding duck penises. It likely won’t replace government research funding.

However, some universities are reluctant. Jason Tetro, a microbiology researcher at the University of Ottawa, said the Dean of Medicine vetoed his plans for a crowdfunded database tracking new pathogens.

“The university may find itself under the gun in public opinion,” Tetro said, saying after the panic about H5N1 research – soliciting direct donations for studying new pathogens may be controversial.

The University of Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment.

Scientists need to meet backlash head-on and let people into their process, Ranganthan said, which is the core aim of #SciFund.

While there was only one Canadian project last round, Ranganathan expects more during the May #SciFund Challenge.




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