Over the years science funding has changed significantly. In the past, funding would have been obtained through private benefaction from wealthy individuals. Today, researchers are usually funded by a mixture of grants from government agencies, non-profit foundations and institutions. However, with the increasing popularity of social media and the internet, methods used to obtain money may be undergoing a shift. New routes linking funding sources with scientists are being increasingly explored. Tighter budgets and struggling economies are driving a need for new ways of funding and social media is proving to be invaluable in raising awareness of projects and linking like-minded people more effectively.
In this special Soapbox Science series, we focus on the new ways in which science groups and individuals are obtaining funding and how projects such as Tekla Labs, Kickstarter and the #scifundchallenge may change the future of scientific research.
In this post we will hear from three different groups who are using a new website, Petridish.org, to help fund their research.
Geoff Gallice grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, where he spent every available minute searching nearby fields and small forest patches for insects. At the University of Maryland, he quickly chose biology as his major and since making his first trip to the tropics during his third year, he has been unequivocally devoted to tropical ecology and conservation. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida’s McGuire Center.
After watching a documentary about the Amazon when I was child, I wanted desperately to visit. I finally got my chance just a few years ago, and the rainforest that I encountered both met and exceeded all of my expectations – I decided right then and there, without vacillation, that I would study tropical biology. Today, I am a graduate student at the University of Florida’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, a leading center for tropical Lepidoptera research. I’m interested primarily in the large scale relationship between species abundance and distribution, as well as its underlying causes, using Neotropical butterflies as a model system.
I’m planning a trip to Peru beginning in late 2012, where I will gather butterfly abundance and other ecological information to test this relationship, as well as potential underlying causes, including breadth of host-plant use. I’ve prepared thoroughly for the trip, first by conducting a similar brief project in Ecuador for my Master’s, and currently by teaching myself everything I can about ithomiine host-plants. I feel very well-equipped to see the project through – the only gaping hole in my plan at this moment is funding, and securing the relatively small amount of cash that I need to conduct my field study in Peru has indeed been a struggle.
Apart from a few comparatively well-studied groups, even the basic biology of nearly every species of tropical plant and animal remains almost completely unknown. Certainly a large number of causes are to blame for this situation, but two in particular stand out. First, most of the world’s biologists are trained, and therefore conduct research close to home in the temperate regions of Western Europe and North America. Second, and perhaps more importantly, there is an abysmal lack of funding for research in the tropics. But a ground-breaking new website, Petridish.org, aims to change that. The folks at Petridish recently launched their first round of projects and anyone is free to donate to a project that they wish to see completed.
This crowdfunding approach accomplishes two things simultaneously. It helps scientists raise funds by tapping a previously neglected resource, the interested public, while engaging said public in science from its incipient stage. Given both the scarcity of science funding and an alarming disconnect between science and the general public, the application of crowdfunding to science is a welcomed new approach. I’m excited to be part of the initial launch of Petridish.org, and not just because I envision a real chance to raise the funds needed for my research. I simply love the crowdfunding model and I hope to see Petridish usher in a new era of funding for tropical biology, and indeed science in general.
Morgan Gustison is a doctoral graduate student in the Psychology Department at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. She is a member of the University of Michigan Gelada Research Project, a team of researchers who have studied the behavior and biology of Ethiopian gelada monkeys in the Simien Mountains since 2005. Morgan studies the complexity of gelada monkey vocal communication.
There are two common questions I get when telling my friends, family and new acquaintances about what I do for a living. The first is, “Wait… why would you willingly go back to school for 5-7 years in order to study monkey behavior?” The second is, “Do you actually get paid for that?”
“Wait… why would you willingly go back to school for 5-7 years in order to study monkey behavior?”
It’s always fun to answer the first question – I start by reliving some of my experiences as a cage-cleaner at the Wisconsin Primate Research Center. At first, the rhesus macaques gave me lots of dirty looks, just as they would any newbie. After working there for several months, however, I began noticing a shift in their behavior – they started grooming each other. One monkey would sprawl out like a dog wanting a belly scratch and its partner would furiously weave through his or her hair to find items that only they can see. This affiliative social behavior was endearing and their trust in one another eerily ‘human-like’. I wondered whether primate behavior was like this in the wild. So, I sought out a series of experiences to learn more about naturalistic primate behavior, including following around owl monkeys in Formosa, Argentina.
Being a ‘field’ researcher is rewarding. We collect data on events that no one else is ever likely to see, like the hostile reactions of a family group to another family group on territory boundaries (think of the Jets and the Sharks from West Side Story), or the sexy calls of a solitary animal to locate potential mates. After observing our non-human primate relatives in the wild, it’s extremely difficult not to be hooked on wanting to know more about their similarities and differences with humans. For instance, humans have language at our our disposal, but what about our primate relatives? This is the question driving my current research directions. Perhaps surprisingly, the wealth of research on primate communication suggests that overall, non-human primates have relatively simple ways of communicating vocally – using small repertoires of sounds and rarely combining these sounds into complex sequences. Preliminary observations and analysis carried out by my academic supervisor at the University of Michigan, Dr. Thore Bergman, collaborator Dr. Aliza le Roux and I suggest that gelada monkeys are one of the rare species that produce a large repertoire of vocalizations and express the special ability to combine these vocalizations. Gelada monkeys, a primate endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia, are particularly interesting because they produce and combine together several unique vocalizations that do not have homologous versions produced by closely related monkey species.
“Do you actually get paid for that?”
To answer this question, I explain that funding for research comes from two sides: the first side is to cover your living expenses, or salary, and the second is to cover the research itself. Both types of funding have their own unique challenges to a budding scientist in the world of primate behaviour. Main sources of funding for U.S. graduate students to carry out research on primate behavior come from dissertation grants from the National Science Foundation, Fulbright, and the Leakey Foundation. As with most funding sources, these organizations were hit hard by the recession. With no choice but to restrict budgets, this means that researchers have to “apply for anything and everything” with the hope that at least 10% of their grant applications will succeed in the heightened competition from their peers’ applications. In a sense, the scene is becoming much more like individual-biased sport, with a greater and greater weaning of athlete scientists from the arena over time. Yet, science isn’t an individualistic sport, right? Shouldn’t we be working together as a team to enhance our understanding of the natural world?
This funding competition is what has driven some researchers to locate novel ways to fund their work. Recently, I have run into an idea called ‘crowdfunding’ – this basically means that you seek out sponsorship from the public. I just began advertising my proposed gelada monkey communication research on a newly launched crowdfunding website called Petridish.org. Several of my colleagues and I are excited about Petridish because its benefits are two-fold. Not only is it a potential source for funding for projects that would be unaffordable otherwise, we also have the opportunity to interact directly with the public. This ‘outreach’ phase in science often happens after your projects are said and done, and Petridish gives us the chance to excite people one-on-one about our research right at the very beginning. It’s great that people can now be a part of scientific discovery from start to finish.
Already, 42 people have decided to back my project and I have reached 50% of my funding goal. There are still 4 weeks to go before my time is up and I leave for a 2-month field season in Ethiopia (to be followed by another 4-5 months next January). Seeing the enthusiasm from my backers on Petridish has only boosted my excitement about my upcoming fieldwork. It’s comforting to know that several people will be looking forward to email updates on the project when I am in the field and when I am back in the USA analyzing my data. I hope that this website is a success so that it can be a resource for future scientists to interact with the public and find support for their research. I encourage readers to check out the website and spread the news to friends and colleagues.
Often found hip-deep in Madagascar mud, Dr. Brian Fisher is a modern day explorer who has devoted his life to the study and conservation of ants and biodiversity around the world. He is Curator of Entomology at CAS and adjunct professor at UCB and SFSU. He created the annual Ant Course in 2001, AntWeb in 2002, and the Madagascar Biodiversity Center in 2004. He has published over 90 articles on ants, and trains dozens of international graduate students in the taxonomy and natural history of ants, skills enabling them to use ants as an important indicator of biodiversity across the globe.
In the past, scientists could depend on just a few government sources such as NSF or NIH to support our programs. But as funding opportunities there have decreased, we have had no option but to develop alternative sources to keep our research programs moving forward as we wait for the next NSF grant. One way to deal with the current funding environment in science is to act more like an entrepreneur and cultivate a portfolio of investors to support research programs. Because I am often locked up in my office looking at ants, it was not apparent how I could meet potential donors. A recently launched site, Petridish, provides just the service I’d been looking for. It matches research ideas with interested members of the public willing to invest in projects. Crowdsourcing, as such matchmaking services are called, could help locate patrons to support science activities. If the Medicis, who helped support Leonardo da Vinci, represent the patronage of the 1%, Petridish offers patronage to the 99%. When I first learned about Petridish, I realized this concept could be very helpful to those studying primates or maybe elephants. I was less certain the average person would be interested in supporting my research into organisms which most people consider “invisible” or see only as a kitchen pest.
My research on ant taxonomy and evolution starts with very simple question: what species exist and where? My goal is to place ants on equal footing with birds in ecological and conservation studies across the world. With only an estimated 15% of life on Earth described, it’s clear that we need a renewed investment in species discovery and description to reach this vision. Convincing the general public to support this research is quite different than writing a proposal to colleagues at NSF. The challenge is to find a way to make them investment partners in the research. Some might be convinced once they realize that ants are the glue that holds ecosystems together. Others might care because species discovery improves our understanding of the history and evolution of life on this planet. Still others may be moved by the adventure of discovery (if you have any doubt that species discovery is one of the greatest adventures left on earth, check out these photos and images of Madagascar after cyclone Irina hit the island in early March of this year).
I recently gave Petridish.org a try and put together a request for backers for an expedition to discover new ant species in a remote region of Madagascar. The project is now almost completely funded and demonstrates that crowdsourcing has real potential to support my research program. For an NSF grant, we are used to devoting three weeks of writing aimed at other experts in the field to prepare the proposal. With crowdsourcing, we need to get used to developing text and video aimed at a much wider audience. For me, this was not easy – I needed to figure out how to make a video and create and develop a compelling project description.
At a time when there is growing public concern about the role and importance of basic science, we need scientists who can also act as advocates. No longer can we afford to work in isolation without engaging the broader public in our endeavors. The public must understand the importance of funding science and the role of science in society. Crowdsourcing, in addition to funding science, offers a great way for scientists to connect directly with the public. In the long run, methods that invite the community to take part will hopefully help to keep science funded.
To find out more about science funding you can read this special Nature News feature, Finding philanthropy: Like it? Pay for it.