Necessity, so the proverb has it, is the mother of invention. And science is nothing if not inventive. So, as conventional sources of money get harder to tap (the success rate enjoyed by those applying for research grants from the National Institutes of Health, America’s biggest science-funding agency, has fallen from 30% in 2003 to 18% in 2011), some of science’s more creative minds are turning elsewhere.
Philanthropic sponsorship of science, particularly in the form of expensive pieces of kit such as large telescopes, or sponsorship for expeditions to far-off places, has been around for centuries. But the internet now permits what might be thought of as microphilanthropy. Through a technique called crowdfunding, in which members of the public donate small sums to projects they like the look of (sometimes in the knowledge that the donation will be taken up only if sufficient other pledges are made to surpass a stated target), the possibility of scientific philanthropy has been extended to those of more slender means.
On October 4th, for example, Ethan Perlstein, a pharmacologist at Princeton University, launched a bid on a site called RocketHub to collect $25,000 to study the effect of drugs such as methamphetamine on the brain. He has until November 18th to raise the money.
Kristina Killgrove, an anthropologist at the University of West Florida, has already raised over $12,000 on RocketHub to examine the DNA of Roman skeletons. And on another crowdfunding site, Petridish, the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) offered to name any new species of ant discovered during a conservation project in Madagascar after those who donate more than $5,000 to the enterprise.
Although the crowdfunding of science is not raising the sorts of sums sometimes attracted by those with ideas for things like video games, it has already spawned a couple of specialised platforms of its own. Petridish is one. Another is called Microryza. And academic institutions are starting to follow the lead taken by the CAS. The University of California, San Francisco, has made a deal with a site called Indiegogo that will allow the university’s charitable status to make money donated via Indiegogo tax deductible. It will launch the first such project later this month.
Donors can expect no revenue if a crowdfunded science project is successful, of course. But they can expect to be kept up to date with progress. Dr Perlstein has promised to upload all data from his experiments onto a website, for his sponsors to look at. And even those who are not immortalised in the myrmicine literature, as the CAS proposed, may still get a warm glow from the feeling that they are making a contribution to the advancement of knowledge in a way which was previously open only to philanthropists with rather fatter wallets.
First published in The Economist. Also available in audio here.
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