A New Funding Model For Science?

3 May

This is a guest post by Andy Gersick.

One of the easy-to-spot problems in contemporary American science culture is the heavy hand that public pressure seems to wield in science policy. If you find yourself chewing over the federal government’s approach to energy, environmental regulation or reproductive health, it’s hard not to conclude that our national science agenda goes where public pressure tells it to go. And you might suspect that a scientist whose work falls within the golden circumference of public enthusiasm would have a good shot at all sorts of government money. But there you’d be wrong.

Or at least you’d be wrong where I’m concerned. I’m an animal behaviorist. I study spotted hyenas in the Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya. A good workday is eight hours leaning out the window of my truck watching hyenas, taking field notes, or running experiments in which I test subjects’ responses to recorded calls, to investigate how hyenas use vocal signals to communicate and cooperate. My own research seems a little esoteric to me, but when I tell other people about it – parents at my son’s school, friends of friends – I’m amazed at how often they say they’d like to do what I do “in another life.” At dinner parties I have the strange problem of not being able to steer the conversation away from myself. Everyone seems to agree that I and my work are a perfect general-interest topic to fuel conversation. While I used to worry that my particular fascinations would lead me to labor in obscurity over arcane questions, data from other people suggests that what I do is – broadly speaking – neat.

That apparent neatness became the crux of a dilemma recently, when I unexpectedly got invited to participate in a new venture aimed at turning public enthusiasm for science into publicly sourced science funding. A New York-based entrepreneur named Matt Salzberg contacted a colleague of mine and asked him to recommend young scientists for the launch of a sort of Kickstarter for science. The new site is called Petridish.org. The concept is a logical extension of the crowdfunding phenomenon, which offers enthusiasts in any domain the chance to become small-time patrons. So far that model has mostly been applied to technology and the arts, but patronage has a long history in the sciences as well: the Medicis – the archetypical Renaissance patrons – supported Michelangelo but also fostered Galileo’s career.

So the entrepreneur approached the colleague and the colleague approached me. Wasn’t I looking for funds to get back to my study site? Did I want to put my research online and see who might want to pitch in? I had reservations. Asking for money seems much less dignified when done outside the formalized confines of a grant proposal. And the site guidelines suggested offering small rewards at various donation levels; would someone actually want a signed copy of one of my publications? Besides my vain fear of putting myself up for auction and not getting any bidders, I worried about the implications that patronage, on any scale, could have for the way that people do research. But – a big but – I do need the money.

Here’s some unscientific reportage on the relationship between public curiosity about animal behavior and public-sector support for research to feed that curiosity. A scan of the Science homepage for the New York Times on April 16th showed seven out of forty-one articles pertaining to animal behavior and evolution. That’s about 17 percent. Discovery Channel, the third most widely distributed cable channel in the country, devotes about 20% of its current programming to shows focused on animal behavior. So from the alleged media-elitists at the Times to Discovery Network’s big-tent science-y populists (the channel has four different reality shows about survival-ers who survive their way out of remote wildernesses each week), purveyors of science-based news and entertainment think that their audience wants to spend about 20% of its attention learning about animal behavior and evolution.

By way of contrast, I looked at the National Science Foundation’s 2012 awards in the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The program provides tuition support to graduate-level researchers across a wide range of disciplines (I should mention that I’m a GRFP fellow myself). It’s the government’s effort to “ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States.”  NSF offered 2,000 GRFP fellowships last year; three went to students researching “Animal Behavior”. Another 71 supported students in closely allied fields. Since the GRFP is the program through which NSF supports the next generation of researchers, it seems like a good (rough) index to the level of emphasis the agency is placing on different disciplines. So let’s say the NSF is devoting 74/2000ths of its funding – 4% — to the next generation of ethologists.

Mine is certainly not the only field that captures a large share of the public’s imagination while earning just a small allotment of public funds. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson – possibly America’s most winning contemporary ambassador for scientific research – has recently spoken and written eloquently of the gulf between government funding for NASA and the inspirational and intellectual value that space exploration has for our culture. And it would be silly to argue that the government should fund the kind of research I do at the same level it supports more applied fields that relate directly to infrastructure or human health. But the gap between public interest in “nature” and public funding for science about nature may be a space waiting to be filled by something like Petridish.

Furthermore, ethology may be especially well-suited to the scale and scope of crowdfunding. While my colleagues and I would love to work with the seven-figure budgets that are routine in high-profile applied fields, we can do some decent science with more modest sums of money. My own “research team” consists of myself and a part-time research assistant. My truck and my tent are indispensable facilities. I could not do the work I do if I didn’t weren’t piggy-backing on the field operation established by Dr. Kay Holekamp’s Mara Hyena Project, which has itself been supported by a rare long-term, large-scale federal grant. As a doctoral candidate I also draw critical support from a number of advisors and institutions. But the point is that dollar amounts in the thousands, as opposed to hundreds of thousands or millions, are meaningful to my current work. And if there are animal-behavior enthusiasts out there who would honestly like to play a role in supporting research by people like me, and who would actually consider a copy of a journal article to be a reward for granting that support, then possibly this is something to cheer.

I honestly don’t know yet. Here’s my project page. There are twenty-two other projects on Petridish so far. A majority are in ethology, organismal biology and ecology, but there are projects in fields like astronomy and geology as well. I encourage readers to check out the site –not just my page but anything that looks exciting. If something arouses your curiosity and makes you feel like getting involved, then by all means do become a supporter. The great promise of a tool like Petridish is that it can convert the diffuse potential energy of public wonder about the natural world into directed, kinetic force to drive new scientific work. It can turn a spark of interest into a small donation, and a cluster of those donations into real funding for research. That’s the idea, anyway. If the whole thing doesn’t quite work for you – if you look around and think, “meh” – then please leave a comment and share your thoughts. As I said, I don’t yet know whether I think this is a good funding model. Your comments would be data to help figure it out. Like many things, this is an experiment.

Andy Gersick is a doctoral candidate in Animal Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies vocal communication, social behavior and cognition among spotted hyenas in the Maasai Mara, Kenya.


8 Responses to “A New Funding Model For Science?”

  1. Jamie Vernon May 3, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    I think this is a very dangerous slippery slope that might undermine the integrity of the current federal funding infrastructure for science. Consider what Napster and iTunes has done to the music industry. Of course, in music there are benefits as well, and surely there are benefits to science, however in the bigger scheme of things, once people begin to feel they’ve made their contribution to science through an outside/private funding mechanism, they will be less inclined to support the existing model. And though there are issues with the existing model, I believe it can be reformed. I ask how many feel that we should embrace the “free market” approach to science funding? I think many would be apprehensive about transitioning in this direction. Federal funding is able to support science that would otherwise be undervalued. In my opinion, creating competition for the federal model is a risk.

    • Andy Gersick May 4, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

      Hi Jaime,

      I definitely share some of your apprehension, though I guess my worries are more about whether there’s a danger of people starting to tailor their research to make it more appealing to a crowdfunding platform. But I’m not sure there’s much chance of crowdfunding “competing” with more established types of government or foundation-based grants. The distance between those two spheres is so great; I feel as if someone who has given $25 to a petridish project is highly unlikely to reason that she’s done her part and now she wants to actively withdraw her support, as a taxpayer, from federal science funding. The Napster/music industry model is one in which consumers seeking access to a product have swapped one mode of consumption (paying for records) for another (downloading songs). I could be wrong, but I don’t see an analog in the research-funding world, largely because individual members of the public haven’t previously had any direct involvement in funding research.

      But I could very well be wrong on this.

  2. Zen Faulkes May 3, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    I am currently participating in another crowdfunding project, #SciFund, for the second time. I have two posts related to crowdfunding issus.

    It’s just a matter of time before someone hits it big by crowdfunding their science: http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2012/05/this-is-future-of-science-scifund.html

    Here is a short summary of arguments I’ve been developing over the last five years that lead me to think that we need crowdfunding for science: http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2012/05/why-crowdfunding-is-needed-precis.html

  3. Tom May 4, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    Andy, great post. Jamie, right on…collaboration not competition.

    Crowdsourcing is a great plan and I’m very interested in the marketing of such a funding platform. People donate by default to certain disease/causes that don’t need more funding (ie. cancer). We need to convince them otherwise.

    Your research, although “esoteric”, is critical to the survival of our species and it’s our job to collaborate with effective marketers/communicators to make sure people understand why. We spend a lot of time and money studying molecular interactions within our own bodies–in the case of cancer, arthritis, heart disease, etc.–but the interactions we should be studying are organismal interaction. How do we interact with our environment and how does an environment interact within itself.
    I’m totally on board with studying how species other than ourselves have survived on this planet for 10′s of millions of years. We can learn a lot from them.

    Now how do we convince the rest of humanity to believe that?

  4. Andy Gersick May 4, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    Addendum to my post: shortly after publishing on Culture of Science I reached my individual funding goal on Petridish.org (THANK YOU to any CoS readers who helped make that happen). I’m not sure if Petridish will keep my project page active, so I encourage anyone who’s interested to follow the link to the main site and check out projects that are still trying to reach their goals.

  5. Amy Kaminski May 14, 2012 at 10:43 pm #


    I think this crowdsourcing approach is good for science, scientists, science communication, and public engagement with science and technology alike. Unlike federally funded science, it prompts scientists to think about and communicate the relevance of their work in clear terms so that members of the public can understand it — a skill that has been lost by many due to the culture of answering to funding agencies and institutions and not the citizenry. This approach thus shifts the accountability equation while also fostering improved public communication of science and technology and empowering citizens to make choices about what science to fund per their own values. As Andy points out, this is not unlike what was done for centuries, when private patrons funded science. And this still happens in many disciplines on large scales today, even with a prominent federal funding structure. Thanks to the advent of the Internet, this avenue can now be expanded, and even relatively small projects can find “matches” to the funds they seek. Until the US Government ceases to make the connection between science and societal benefit, I don’t envision crowdsourcing of science funding to be a competitor to federal R&D funding but, rather, a supplement.

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