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Crowd-sourcing science funding

US_SilvercertSM.jpg Attention, scientists: got any friends who might want to make a donation to a broke biologist… or two or three? They can do so over at FundScience, a nonprofit organization which today is announcing three projects that you, your next-door neighbor, or anyone at all can help fund with the click of a mouse.

The idea behind FundScience is two-fold, says David Vitrant, the organization’s executive director: providing a novel system of support for young researchers with innovative ideas, and engaging the public more directly in science. Sure, people who want to support cancer research can make a donation to a foundation, but that money disappears into a black hole, and the donor remains completely disconnected from the science that money supports. “At some point it gets to researchers, but you have no idea who it is,” says Vitrant.

He and a partner, Mark Friedgan, created FundScience on the model of organizations like the microlending web site Kiva, where people can scroll through a list of small-scale endeavors, most based in the developing world, and contribute a chosen amount of money to those that strike their fancy.

Applicants can request up to $50,000 and must be based at a university, so that the money received through FundScience can be administered like any standard research grant. Projects are selected by a network of peer reviewers, and FundScience provides 10% of their requested funds as seed money. Researchers who sign on are also required to blog about their progress to keep contributors up to date on their efforts.

Of course, Vitrant concedes, some projects will fail. “That’s part of the thing the public needs to understand – research isn’t cut and dried,” he says. “The cell doesn’t always cooperate.”

About 40 people from institutions around the country – mostly graduate students and postdocs — applied after the organization put out a call for submissions earlier this year.

Two of this round’s chosen projects, both based at the University of Pittsburgh, address very basic questions in biology – genomic studies of drug-resistant strains of pneumococcus, a bacterium that causes bacterial meningitis and pneumonia, and computer modeling of the glutamate transporter, a nervous system signaling molecule. A third project, called Backyard Brains, aims to make neuroscience accessible to amateur scientists by selling affordable kits that can record the activity of neurons in insects. (That project, because it isn’t university-based, will not receive starting money from FundScience.)

FundScience isn’t the only funding initiative that works on a crowd-sourcing model. An organization called EurekaFund has a similar mission and funding structure for young scientists in the field of energy and the environment. A small grant can help build a track-record of innovation for researchers in the early stage of their career, who may still be working in a senior scientist’s lab and may have few opportunities to develop their own ideas, says Jason Blue-Smith, EurekaFund’s executive director.

So far, just one of the projects on EurekaFund’s web site is actively accepting donations, but Blue-Smith plans to send out an announcement soliciting new submissions this fall. Vitrant, too, hopes to kick off a second round of applications for FundScience in September.

FundScience, EurekaFund, and a third organization, SciFlies, which we profiled last year, will be presenting their ideas for funding research today at the Open Science Summit at the University of California, Berkeley.

Image: Wikimeda commons


  1. Report this comment

    Uncle Al said:

    Charity should be voluntary, especially social welfare. Who says “rights” are rootkits for the Constitution and productive citizens’ earned assets? Stipulate 5% of gross earned income must be donated. Let the mob decide what it wants to purchase.

    Hunger is due to weather, famine is due to politics.

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