Can Science Be Funded on the Web?

Two ecologists, 49 research projects, and a way forward for cash-strapped scientists.

Scientists are turning to crowd-funding platforms to get their research done. (Photo: Getty Images)
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

It's hard to find something that isn't crowd-sourced these days. Restaurant recommendations? Check. Movies? Check. Everyone's favorite workday timesuck? Yup, that too. 

But not everyone's been tapping into the power of the cloud. While popular crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Spot.us have been a game changer for aspiring journalists and creatives, they've yet to be a budget resource for scientists. 

RocketHub's #SciFund Challenge wants to see if they can change that. From now until December 15, the crowdfunding platform is promoting 49 science research projects that anyone with a credit card can support. Topics range from whole-body depression to more exotic projects like the forcefulness of duck sex and a parasite that turns fish into zombies. Users post videos promoting their ideas and offer escalating incentives for donations (for example, a donation of $5,000 will net you a guided weekend tour of St. Petersburg, Russia). 

The challenge was the brainchild of Jai Ranganathan and Jarrett Byrnes, two ecologists who were frustrated with the grim 20 percent funding rate for research proposals in the U.S. Looking into other options, the Internet-savvy pair decided to test the market and the #SciFund Challenge was born. 

It's hard not to like the way these guys are thinking. With a wide red swath of the country still in denial over evolution and climate change, challenges like these could bring the science back into the discussion and raise awareness for the quickly evaporating pool of research money. Given enough exposure, it could even serve as an alternative marketplace for scientific research, where "goods" that are of value to the public move more quickly that they might at an academic institution.

Then again, not everyone's got the cash to throw at the invasive crawfish problem in the Amazon. And for those that do, well, they might have other plans for their money. As Byrnes himself mentions, the RoboCop statue in Detroit was recently funded for 135 percent of its cost—a total of $67,436. Science may be the worthier cause, but there's no competing with nostalgia.

The challenge ends December 15.

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