Science funding, so the story goes, is in crisis. Support for basic research — experiments that lack immediate applications but are crucial for future discoveries — is falling. And young researchers, struggling to compete for grants in the shadow of established peers, have been hit hardest.
Enter crowdfunded science. Experiment.com is leading a pack of Kickstarter-like sites to help researchers find money for their intellectual pursuits. Crowdfunding can’t fill every hole in the system, but it’s propping up research that would otherwise die quietly in a grant proposal.
Experiment.com, formerly known as Microryza, is scrappy but small. Since its launch in 2012, the site has funded just 396 projects, most with budgets under $5,000. In total, supporters pledged just over $5 million to projects on the site. That’s comparatively small beans — the United States government alone spends hundreds of billions annually on research and development.
But Experiment.com knows it can’t replace million-dollar grants. Instead, crowdfunded science offers salvation to smaller experiments that traditional funding sources would otherwise overlook.
Stimulating public engagement with science
Experiment.com shouldn’t be considered as an experiment in science funding — think of it as an experiment in scientific outreach.
It’s a common misunderstanding that crowdfunding is an easy way to get money for a project. Perhaps common, but definitely wrong. You have to design the campaign, promote your idea with videos and other content, and get the word out. With Experiment.com, you have the extra hurdle of convincing the site owners that your experiment is real science — and that you’re qualified to carry it out.
Of 6,000 projects created on the site, just 15.5 percent of projects make it to launch, and under half of those reach their fundraising goal. That’s just a seven-percent success rate overall. If you don’t meet your minimum budget, according to Experiment.com rules, you get nothing. Those projects that do get funded don’t raise a ton of money — less than $10,000 on average.
So why go to all the trouble when the costs are so big and the rewards so small?
The only reason, really, is you’re genuinely excited about science, and you want to get others excited about it, too.
The GMO Corn Experiment is the perfect example of where Experiment.com succeeds. It takes a divisive public question — are genetically modified foods fundamentally dangerous? — and offers a way to answer it experimentally.
In this instance, the project creators will test whether wild animals will avoid eating GMO foods, a common criticism levied by those who oppose GMOs. For a contribution of $25, Citizen Scientists will receive an experiment kit — an ear of GMO corn, an ear of non-GMO corn, and a stand to entice neighborhood squirrels to chow down. (The corn is labelled “1” and “2” rather than “GMO” and “non-GMO,” so the citizen scientist can’t purposefully or accidentally influence the outcome.)
Once complete, the experiment’s results will be released to the public. The brilliance of the experiment is that it’s something that GMO lovers and haters can both get excited about. The researchers aren’t just engaging the public through crowdfunding, they’re actually bringing them into the experiment.
Funding curious minds with a cool idea
To post your project on Experiment.com, the only bar you have to clear is convincing site managers you’re capable of delivering the research. Though the vast majority of researchers on the site have an academic affiliation, the site is open to commercial scientists and other open minds.
In the case of academics, Experiment.com funds projects they wouldn’t be able to do as part of their regular lab work.
Take the LilBubome experiment. Geneticists at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics took note of the most popular and weird-looking cat on the internet, Lil Bub, and thought, hey, that feline probably has some interesting genes. So they crowdfunded the money to sequence Lil Bub’s genome.
Although the scientists are professional geneticists, this is a hobby project that they will complete in their spare time. This is where Experiment.com really shines — raising money to answer questions while spreading scientific curiosity to parts of the internet that traffic mainly in cat memes.
Encouraging young scientists
The vast majority of researchers on Experiment.com are in the early stages of their scientific careers. This makes sense — young scientists are more likely to have the social media skills and interest in science communication necessary to run a successful campaign.
At the more whimsical end of the spectrum, one soon-to-be college grad raised $55 to pay for baking supplies to test the effect of different types of sugar on a chocolate chip cookie recipe.
But the site is fundraising for research on internet gaming addiction, the threat of vegetarianism to masculinity, a 3D-printed device for repairing spinal cord injuries, and using drones to map the Arctic.
Perhaps the young scientists could have funded these more serious experiments elsewhere. But the nature of the crowdfunding platform is there’s an audience baked in: There’s a group of people that wants to know about this work, and guaranteed attention to the outcomes. Because is science science if nobody hears about it?