Scientists experiment with crowdsourcing

Increasing budget cuts have forced researchers to find alternative funding for their projects.
Increasing budget cuts have forced researchers to find alternative funding for their projects. Photo by Sarah Eckinger.

Labs at Yale are researching mosquito sterilization and the abilities of rubber-decomposing fungus, all without grants.

As grants from federal organizations like the National Institutes of Health become increasingly difficult to secure, researchers at Yale and across the nation are turning to a new source of support. Crowdsourcing websites — which allow fundraisers to post projects online and solicit funds from donors across the world — are gaining an increasing foothold. The website Microryza has raised about $400,000 since it started offering crowd sourcing services in April 2012. For innovative research that requires little funding and needs to be completed in a shorter time frame, crowdsourcing provides an attractive alternative to traditional methods.

But this funding route can also be a frustrating reminder of how challenging securing federal grants has become in recent years.

Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steve Girvin said the University acknowledges the changing fiscal climate and is preparing to adapt to new sources of funding support. The Office of Research Administation recently met with the crowdsourcing organization Kickstarter to help formulate a University-wide policy for crowdsourcing.

“It’s all about figuring out how to connect research to potential,” professor of ecology David Skelly said. “It’s a Wild West.”

 

Niche funding

Since 2003, funding from the National Institutes of Health — the nation’s largest biomedical research supporter — has decreased by an average of 1.9 percent per year at an inflation-adjusted rate. With pursestrings so tight, researchers are proposing more conservative projects to these organizations in the hope of attracting funding, said professor of chemistry Richard Baxter. Crowdsourcing fits into a funding niche — smaller amounts of money directed at innovative projects.

“[Crowd sourcing] is different,” he said. “If I applied to NIH to do research, it would be for a large sum of money, and it would be reviewed by a small number of people in the field. But we’re not telling them the new ideas we have.”

Crowdsourcing covers a diverse range of subject areas. In Baxter’s lab, researchers are crowdsourcing to fund a chemist on a project examining how to chemically sterilize male mosquitoes to prevent malaria transmission — a line of inquiry begun over a year ago. In the lab of professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry Scott Strobel, crowdsourced funding is supporting research on altering a fungus protein so it can recognize and break down the chemical structure of synthesized rubber. Skelly and his team successfully funded a project looking into how the hormone estrogen enters the ecosystem, supported both by external grants and and $5,500 on the crowdsourcing site Petridish.

While federal grants may take months to write and even more to undergo the review process, crowdsourcing is a much more rapid process, professor of ecology David Skelly said. The rapid pace of crowdsourcing is especially useful for graduate students who feel time pressure to finish up their research and for seniors before they graduate, he said.

Both Microryza and Petridish require projects to have a fundraising deadline. Microryza recommends only 30 days, and Strobel Lab researcher Michelle Chen MD ’14, said the short deadline conveys a sense of urgency to potential donors.

Researchers are not the only ones benefiting from the crowdsourcing movement.

Kaury Kucera GRD ’10, a post-doctoral researcher who works in the Strobel Lab, said researchers have to rid the proposals of technical jargon and conduct “elevator pitches” to the public to attract funding online. On the other hand, taxpayer dollar go to support federal grants and the public sees none of the decision making process.

Even after the initial donation, communication between the researcher and donors continue. Microryza encourages researchers to post “Lab Notes,” detailing what they’ve been doing and have accomplished to keep donors informed of their work.

In addition to the information flow from researchers to donors, Baxter said he’s continually inspired when people discover the research online. Someone from Pakistan and another from Germany contacted him to tell him how interesting they found his research. A high school student who worked in his lab this past summer is now raising money from his chess club for the mosquito sterilization research, he added.

Skelly said he is humbled when the public donates to his research.

“There’s no other comparable way to show an undergraduate that this is a project worth doing,” he said.

 

Funding insecurities

Although Microryza has funded 57 projects in the last 17 months, researchers enter the process unsure whether they will leave with even a dollar: if the fundraising goal is not reached before deadline, the pledges are returned to the donors and the researchers get nothing.

Jacob Marcus, the Yale senior whose mosquito sterilization research may gain a lab chemist funded by Microryza, said he is not feeling optimistic about reaching their goal, which would allow them to pay for the chemist. With 25 days remaining, and $405 out of an expected $6,000 raised, the project is only 6% funded. While he started with high expectations for using Microryza, he said he has been “let down” so far.

Although Ryan Boyko GRD ’18 was able to raise over the $8,000 needed for his research, which focused on tracking ancient dog populations in Africa, he said he’s “ambivalent” about the novel funding source.

“How many people are actually going to go out of their way to look up these projects once a week, and then have another $100 to spare every week?” Boyko said. “It’s kind of sad that you have to make a website and hit up family and friends for funding,” he said.

According to Kucera, some researchers see the need to communicate effectively with the public as “low brow.”

“Because there’s such prestige to receiving large grants, there’s a mentality that if I have to ask the public for money, I might not be doing that well,” she said.

While he thinks engaging the public in science research and encouraging scientists to learn how to communicate the relevancy of their research are important, Boyko doesn’t see this social media and communication focus as wholly positive. He spent hours devoted to making a compelling video, which took time away from the research itself, he said.

To Boyko, the idea that independent start-up companies, as opposed to larger established companies, could create a sustainable business model through crowd-sourcing, which requires a lot of time and effort to initiate and monitor, is hard to fathom. “People with that amount of skill can be doing different things; it can’t be anyone’s full time job,” he said.

“More and more science is going to have be oriented [to crowdsourcing] as budgets for major science funding are flat or declining,” Skelly said.

Correction: Oct. 21

A previous version of this article gave the impression that Jacob Marcus’ research was being funded by Microryza. In fact, the research is being augmented by a Microryza fund that would go to support a research chemist to assist the project. Marcus is optimistic about the project’s completion, but not about successfully crowd sourcing to fund a chemist. Finally, the research for the project began over a year ago and not with the recent crowdsourcing initiative.

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