A grand experiment in science funding

Among all the young scientists I know, I think Ethan Perlstein is one of the most innovative in the way he has adapted to the internet era. His website is incredibly unique among academic websites, he is all over the social media and his latest experiment in crowd-funding his research is something I'm definitely keeping an eye on.

The basic idea is that he has identified a project (giving meth to yeast mouse brains -see the comment by Ethan below-, I think) and put it up on Rockethub, which is a crowd funding platform. The basic idea is he is looking for people to donate to his lab to fund the project. I would love it if this project succeeded, so if you have a few extra dollars lying around I'm sure he'd really appreciate it if you'd donate.

At the bigger picture level, I love the idea of crowd-funding for science in principal. But it isn't clear that it is going to work in practice. Ethan has been tearing it up with this project, even ending up in the Economist, but he has still had trouble getting to his goal for funding. In the grand scheme of things he is asking for a relatively small amount given how much he will do, so it isn't clear to me that this is a viable option for most scientists.

The other key problem, as a statistician, is that many of the projects I work on will not be as easily understandable/cool as giving meth to yeast. So, for example, I'm not sure I'd be able to generate the kind of support I'd need for my group to work on statistical analysis of RNA-seq data or batch effect removal methods.

Still, I love the idea, and it would be great if there were alternative sources of revenue for the incredibly important work that scientists like Ethan and others are doing.

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  • Victoria Stodden

    I made a similar suggestion recently, a "kickstarter" for science. How best to donate to science, as an outsider, isn't at all clear. It is certainly true that some projects would be better suited to this approach than others, but if it works for some, hey, great. The traditional funding channels are still there, and maybe the "less marketable" projects might even have less competition!

    "11/10/2012: Set up a "gift registry," like people do for weddings, for science. Instead of listing gravy bowls and crock pots, research projects are listed with research PI, institution, and goals. People can donate money through the website, and it goes to an escrow account at the PI's institution until funding targets have been met, at which point the project commences. Sort of like a kickstarter for science. All the research output would go through traditional peer reviewed outlets, because incentives would not have changed for the researcher - they are still evaluated by their peers. My hope is that this is a way to harness funding for science, and perhaps get important projects funded that are overlooked by the agencies and foundations (for example, herpes research isn't well-funded, presumably since it isn't life threatening, but this is something that significantly affects many people's quality of life)."

    Since the donations would go to a non-profit institution, such as a university, presumably they'd even be tax-deductible.

    from: http://stanford.edu/~vcs/Ideas.html

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      I like the "project registry" idea a lot!

      If you haven't already, you should talk to Cindy Wu at Microryza, a cool science crowdfunding startup based in Seattle.

  • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

    Thanks for blogging about us!

    Clarification: we are not giving meth to yeast, although that sounds like a great stretch goal! My lab at Princeton used to give antidepressants to yeast cells, but in this project we'll study drug accumulation in the brain cells of lab mice.

    Per scalability, I think the next big budget goal in the short to medium term is $100,000. Just yesterday I learned about a biomedical research project aiming to do just that. So the experiment is underway and the data are streaming in real-time.

    Per popularity, if the science you do excites you, then it's surely not the drudgery part but the end goal. Are some scientists better at communicating their work and its significance better than others? Yes. But I think the market for hybrid basic and clinical research projects is quite large, and hungry. And scientists will gradually adapt to the Internet Age.

  • Elisabeth Whyte

    The #Scifund Challenge group on Rockethub doesn't have as big of individual goals as Ethan, but there are a handful of basic science projects on there that have already (in about a week) collected an overall pretty impressive amount of donations - even for projects that aren't as flashy as Ethan's. So, I think crowdfunding can work well with small goals. Scifund is in the third round of crowdfunding (with 35 scientists this round). The second round of Scifund actually broke the $100,000 mark collectively across all the participating projects (with most of them below 5,000 for each individual project). If you have a reasonable goal and communicate your project well, then I think it is possible to get donations. You just have to make sure that you don't talk in technical jargon, but instead make the science accessible to the public.