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.