Scientists Look To The Internet To Raise Research Funds

Scientists are learning what artists have already figured out: there's money out there. Specifically, there's money among the users of the Internet, and they are willing to donate it for what they consider to be good causes.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Scientists have made an important discovery, and not really a scientific one. They've learned they can raise money for their research simply by going on the Internet and asking people for support. We heard yesterday how that worked for one researcher. Still, scientists have no idea why this approach is working or how much money they can raise this way. Here's NPR's Joe Palca with the next installment of his project Joe's Big Idea.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: If there's one thing I've learned as a science correspondent, it's that when scientists are mystified by a phenomenon, they investigate.

ETHAN PERLSTEIN: Have you ever given to a crowdfunding project before?

PAOLOMI MERCHANT: No, this is my first time.

PALCA: Pharmacologist Ethan Perlstein is sitting across from Paolomi Merchant at Dewey's Flatiron, a not-so-upscale bar on Fifth Avenue in New York City. He's invited people for lunch here who contributed to his successful $25,000 fundraising campaign.

PERLSTEIN: Had you been kind of looking to fund something like this or was it completely from left field, he blogged about it, and you were just like, this sounds cool?

MERCHANT: Yeah, it just sounded cool.

PALCA: Not terribly helpful. Perlstein raised the money so he could continue his research on how drugs affect the brain. What supporter Mitchell Scott Lampert likes about Perlstein's plans is that there's no guarantees about what he'll find.

MITCHELL SCOTT LAMPERT: I think the nice thing about discovery is that it's hard for it to go wrong, unless the folks working behind it are incompetent, which I doubt. They're going to discover something.

PALCA: So if Mitchell Scott Lampert is typical, selling science as a voyage of discovery will get people to donate. But is he typical? Who knows? There does seem to be a consensus that the first step in crowdfunding science is to make a video pitching your research. And it doesn't have to be a particularly slick video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

ZACHARY APTE: Hi, I'm Zach.

WILLIAM LUDINGTON: I'm Will.

JESSICA RICHMAN: And I'm Jessica. I'm here to tell you about an exciting new project that we're working on, uBiome.

PALCA: Zach, Will and Jessica are Zachary Apte, William Ludington and Jessica Richman. uBiome is all about understanding the human microbiome, the collection of microbes in your body. Going in, Richman said she and her colleagues had no idea whether their pitch would be successful.

RICHMAN: There's a lot of uncertainty. You sort of don't know if you're going to raise $10 or a million dollars, and you have to sort of be prepared, or keep your mind open for those any of those things to happen.

PALCA: Turns out they hit it big - one of the few to raise more than a quarter of a million bucks from their Internet campaign. And I think they were as surprised as anyone. It seems likely they caught a recent wave of interest in what's living in our guts, and people get something when they contribute: a personalized readout of the bacteria in their own digestive tract. Richman says they chose to crowdfund their project rather than use traditional types of fundraising because they wanted to engage the public in the project.

RICHMAN: There's something magical that happens with crowdfunding where you start getting, you know, 500 emails from people telling you, well, does it do this? What about that? Or why doesn't it do that? And that really helps you refine what you're doing and understand better what people's questions and needs are.

PALCA: So far, most of the scientists who've tried crowdfunding haven't raised anything close to $250,000 - maybe 5,000 tops.

JAI RANGANATHAN: People say, you know, what can I do with $5,000? I'm an ecologist. You can do a lot of things for $5,000.

PALCA: Jai Ranganathan is with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California. He's also cofounder of SciFund Challenge, an effort to encourage scientists to crowdfund. He says for an ecologist, $5,000 is enough for several months of field work.

RANGANATHAN: Not all science is, you know, sending a rocket to Mars.

PALCA: Now, I got to tell you, there are some critics of crowdfunding. They worry that crowdfunding will turn science into a popularity contest.

RANGANATHAN: Only the panda bear research is going to get funded. My very serious research will never get funded this way - that's the worry. And, in fact, it's dead wrong.

PALCA: He says even esoteric projects can raise money.

RANGANATHAN: We had a microbiologist in New Zealand who was studying the evolution of e. Coli in mouse guts. Wow. There's nothing very particularly sexy about that, but she was such a gifted communicator and like, saying, hey, this is why it's exciting.

PALCA: And to tell the truth, Ranganathan says, scientists ought to get better at selling their science.

RANGANATHAN: My goal is to change the culture of science to one where scientists are reaching out to the public.

PALCA: Ranganathan says scientists need to be persuaded that reaching out to the public is a good thing.

RANGANATHAN: Some do, and there are many do a fantastic job. But generally do scientists reach out? No, they don't. We need a new argument. How about money? Money seems to be a good argument sometimes.

PALCA: Frankly, the idea of being financially rewarded for being a good science communicator always seemed like a worthy goal to me. Joe Palca, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can find more stories about what's going on inside the world of scientists and inventors at NPR.org/JoesBigIdea.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Kickstarter, of course, is one of the most popular crowdfunding platforms out there. It debuted in 2009, allowing people to pitch their pet projects online to a wide audience. And now there's a new way for individuals and small businesses to get attention, and for potential backers to find ideas they may want to support. Kickstarter is going mobile. It just released its first iPhone app. There's no app, though, for Android devices.

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