Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Crowdfunding science: Give a gift to research

Thinking about donating to a charity this Christmas? Consider contributing directly to your favourite scientific project.
Scientists have joined the ranks of those asking the public to help fund their work. Their research projects hide among the art, video and book proposals on large crowd funding sites like Kickstarter, RocketHub and IndieGoGo. You can find a neat project here, but choose carefully: not every science project here is run by scientists, nor has it been reviewed by scientific experts.
Two websites - SciFlies and My Projects - showcase science and technology projects which have been reviewed by experts.
Projects on SciFlies include measuring brain activity in people who are compulsive horders and developing a way to test the effects of toxic chemicals in cells as an alternative animal testing.
My Projects is a division of London-based charity Cancer Research UK. This site sorts their research projects by cancer, letting you “choose which cancer to beat.”
Projects on these sites are looking for an injection of cash to continue a specific project. But other scientists have turned to the crowd for help with long-term costs: salaries.
Neurobiologist Adam Gazzaley, of the University of California in San Francisco, and his team study how multitasking reduces our attention and memory especially as we age. Now he’s working on creating video games that help prevent this memory loss. But to continue his research, Gazzaley needs help paying the bills.
“I have all these amazing young folks [in my lab] who are getting paid such a small amount compared to their friends,” says, Gazzaley says. “And I can barely pay them that.”
Gazzaley considers the lab successful - they published 12 papers this year. Yet formerly reliable funding sources from industry, foundations or government grants are disappearing as budgets shrink. Maintaining financial security in a lab is challenging, he says.
Last year he started asking for donations to help pay the salaries of his students and research assistants. He has had little success so far, but he remains undeterred. “I will do what I need to do to keep the money flowing for them,” Gazzaley says.
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols prefers to work with many different organizations, rather than being affiliated with one university. As an independent scientist, his salary is uncertain. Last year he started his 100 Blue Angels project, asking supporters to pay his salary through monthly donations while he continues his sea turtle research and ocean awareness campaigns. New Scientist followed Nichols to Mexico as he studied endangered sea turtles living near a drug trafficking hotspot.
“People said they wanted to support my work, so I directed them to do so through existing organisations,” he says. “But I misunderstood them. They wanted to support me because they like the way I approach things. So I set up a way for them to do that.”
Nichols uses social media to update his supporters about his work and provide live feeds of his lectures when possible. “My only regret is not setting up [the project] five years ago,” he says. “It works.”
Should your interests tend more heavenward, two organizations support astronomy research. The Pale Blue Dot Project lets you adopt a star under the gaze of the Kepler telescope. Your donation funds research that helps measure the size of new exoplanets. In return, the team will send you email updates about your star and any planets found orbiting it.

Supporting SETIStars helps continue the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Public donations helped restart the telescopes at the Allen Telescope Array, which the SETI Institute uses to search for radio signals from aliens. Budget woes shut down the telescopes in April and more public funds will be needed to keep them running, according to Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, at a NASA press conference earlier this month.

And after the festive season you can keep on giving. Should you feel generous or need a dose of happiness in 2012, check the #SciFund Challenge blog for their second round of projects. In the first 49 projects, donors helped an anthropology graduate student travel to his field site in the Amazon jungle and funded research into brain-controlling parasites that infect fish.

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