In the David and Goliath world of science research funding, young scientists who lack the experience and PI status to pull in funding from sources like the NIH and NSF now have a new resource at petridish.org. The website, just launched in a beta version, allows scientists to appeal to ordinary folk for funding to support their research, with typically modest goals of $10,000 or less. The nine projects that debuted on petridish.org are almost all led by PhD candidates, post-docs, and staff researchers from top universities, and most are looking to travel to do data collection for life science projects. These could be tomorrow's big names in science research, getting innovative about moving their research forward now.
As one scientist said of her and a colleague's experiment in online crowdfunding for their biology research project (quoted in a New York Times Science article):
“Both of us had some hesitation. We were sort of afraid we’d lose some legitimacy in the eyes of other scientists. It’s not a peer-reviewed process. I was just ready to do anything it took to do my research. I have had to be opportunistic about keeping my research going. I collect data guerrilla style — when and where I can! I think my story is typical.”
Crowdfunding, like crowdsourcing, may just be the next way that the internet changes the rules about how things are done, in this case giving science entrepreneurs the opportunity to sell their projects the way artists and other creative types have on pioneering crowdfunding sites like kickstarter.org. In fact, scientists have gotten funding on kickstarter.org before too (the above quote and article), which seems to have sown the seed for the research-exclusive petridish. And though the amounts these researchers seek are small currently, there's considerable upside potential. One recently-funded proposal (for a video game) on kickstarter brought in over $3 million from funders who just wanted to see it happen. Could that scenario play out for a budding scientist? Perhaps, but many research projects really can make that phase transition to hardened reality with a sum like $5,000-$10,000 --equipment included. And as a proving ground, that first step can change the course of someone's scientific career.
There will be skeptics and critics of this mass-marketing of science to non-scientists. Where is the oversight? The peer screening? Won't only the "baby animal" projects get funded (the ones with a cute mascot)? There are issues to work out, but the model is too irresistible not to risk giving it a try. Technically, we already are the ones who fund multi-million dollar NIH projects, through our taxes. Experts make the decisions about who gets what, true (and that's probably a good idea), but how wrong could you and I go giving $20 to fund a PhD student's research trip to Peru to study rare butterflies? Especially when he'll send us pictures with his thanks, and a link to his dissertation when it's published?
[Lepidopterist Geoff Gallice, courtesy of his petridish.org project page]
For an interesting discussion of how crowdfunding laws for business may be rewritten soon and what the implications could be, read this recent SBWire article: The Crowdfunding Bill Just Might Save Entrepreneurship.
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