By Malcolm Ritter, AP
NEW YORK–Duke University professor Kathleen Pryer has received her share of grant money. But for her newest project, she’s getting help from a retired nurse in Canada and a 17-year-old in Arkansas.
It’s her first foray into the modern-day world of crowdfunding, the practice of using the Internet to raise relatively small amounts of money from a lot of people to finance a project. It’s quite a departure from the normal sources of funding for scientific research, chiefly industry, government and philanthropies.
Outside of science, it’s been successful for projects like developing video games and other consumer products, publishing books and making films and other entertainment programs. A campaign to finance a movie sequel to the cult television show “Veronica Mars” pulled in US$2 million in less than a day, eventually gathering more than US$5.7 million in 30 days.
But “science has yet to gain Veronica Mars status,” notes Jeanne Garbarino, director of science outreach at Rockefeller University in New York, who has used crowdfunding and informally advised others. Instead, scientific projects tend to be far more modest, generally raising just thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
One researcher, for example, raised about US$2,000 to hire a truck and buy camp supplies to recover a triceratops skeleton he’d found in Wyoming. Current campaigns on the website experiment.com include US$5,000 to investigate a parasite in North Carolina bay scallops, US$3,560 to study a disease of bats, and US$17,400 to tag sharks for migration research.
In one impressive success, more than US$150,000 was raised to contact an old research satellite and put it back to work.
Pryer launched a six-week campaign last month to raise US$15,000 to decipher the DNA of a fast-growing aquatic fern called Azolla. It’s small enough to fit on your thumbnail, but she says learning more about the plant could pay big benefits.
Azolla captures and processes nitrogen from the air with the help of bacteria that live on it, and further study may let scientists engineer that trick into crop plants, reducing the need for fertilizer, she says. Azolla also sucks heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, making it potentially useful for fighting global warming, according to Pryer.
She turned to crowdfunding after being “turned down flat” by the National Science Foundation, and rejected by other traditional sources of funds.
But her project caught the eye of Andrew Willoughby, 17, of Little Rock, Arkansas, when he learned about it on Twitter. With his interest in botany, he thought any steps toward engineering crops that get and process their own nitrogen would be “a great idea.” He pitched in US$15.
Similarly, retired nurse Ingrid Kern of Toronto was impressed by the project when she read a commentary by Pryer in her local newspaper. She tracked down Pryer’s page on experiment.com and donated US$100, her first contribution to a crowdfunding campaign.
The fern “interests me because it’s tiny and it has great potential,” said Kern, who’d been an industrial microbiologist before turning to nursing.
By late June, Pryer’s campaign had raised only about a third of her goal, with just two weeks to go. Then things took a dramatic turn. BGI, a nonprofit institution in China that does DNA research, said it would carry out Pryer’s project for free.
If that hadn’t happened, “I do not think we would have met our goal,” she said.
Her campaign now has a new fundraising target. She hopes to use donated money to pay for analysis of the data she’ll get from BGI. The effort ends this week.