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Spare Some Change for Science

Whether the scientific establishment likes it or not, science is changing. Opportunities available to scientists now are becoming increasingly scarce, and, as students aspiring to be working scientists, we have no choice but to adapt. As Charles Darwin famously said in his defining work, “Multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”

All of this change and adaptation makes this a very frightening time to be a scientist. No, perhaps frightening isn’t the right word. Perhaps exciting is more appropriate. This past year of I have had the privilege to see some of the most promising young scientists accomplish some herculean tasks.

Ethan Perlstein Builds a Meth Lab for Mice

Take, for example Ethan Perlstein, (pictured at left in an image he says was inspired by the TV series, Breaking Bad) formerly a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton University. Ethan recently came to a crossroads. His five-year fellowship at Princeton was expiring and, despite all of his qualifications, he found himself unable to secure a position at an academic institution. Not wanting to give up on his career in research, Ethan turned to some creative solutions to accomplish his goals.

Most notably, Ethan utilized a relatively new revenue stream, crowdfunding, to finance a project to identify areas of methamphetamine accumulation in the brain. Ethan launched his campaign on the crowdfunding platform Rockethub and raised $25,460 by the time his campaign ended on November 26, 2012. Ethan and his colleagues have already begun work on the execution of the project, buying materials and reagents and meeting online with backers to discuss the approach. Despite being one of the first scientists to draw national attention to this unique funding method, Ethan is not alone in his crowdfunding success, nor is he the most fruitful.

Supporters Give $,  Bio Samples and Personal Data

Another success story in crowdfunding is that of uBiome, a project to identify and study the microbiomes (the bacteria that live on your skin and in your gut, among other places) belonging to the backers of the project. This campaign raised an impressive three and a half times the goal of $100,000, coming in with a total of $351,193. In addition to raising the requisite funding for this project, the scientists will also be provided with a very large and varied sample population to study. In exchange for an $80+ donation and a fecal sample, backers of this project will be rewarded with the knowledge and data related to the microbes that live inside of them.

This is a very interesting proposition for people, like me, suffering from gastrointestinal issues, as we stand to learn a lot about our conditions from the results of this study. By crowdfunding this project, uBiome has opened itself up to the general public, allowing anyone with a little extra change and some spare time to learn a little more about themselves, biology, and the scientific process.

Creative solutions such as crowdfunding have a lot of exciting ramifications in the academic world. Instead of depending entirely on funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and Howard Hughes Medical Institute to fund their projects, scientists can now augment, or in some cases even replace, these hyper-competitive revenue streams with money that they can generate themselves.

This may eventually free scientists from the creative constraints often imposed by funding agencies and allow them to reach further and undertake projects once deemed “too risky.” Additionally, this has the added benefit of involving the public in the world of science, a world that can often seem distant and elitist to the average person. Every citizen pays for science when they pay their taxes, but crowdfunding is unique in that it lets them see the fruits of their investment.

Open Science Gets More Open

Many crowdfunded science projects, such as Crowdsourcing, Discovery and uBiome are very open in their methods, often meeting with backers online to discuss progress and results. All this openness and involvement leads to a better educated, more engaged public; perhaps a public that will be more willing to support science both with their wallet and with their ballot.

We are entering an era where being able to communicate and share your work will be nearly as valuable as the work itself. The most successful scientists will be those that write and speak most effectively, for they will have much more freedom in their choices of projects and funding sources and will be not be limited by conventional fundraising models. The rest will simply die off, being unable to fund their projects with the increasingly scarce and increasingly competitive funding models that currently support the scientific establishment. This is science’s own evolution by societal selection, an academic survival of the fittest. Personally, I am excited to see the innovation that can be supported by this new era and I look forward to taking part in this thrilling shift.


Tyler Shimko is an undergraduate studying biology and conducting research at the University of Utah. He is an advocate for open access and recently started a student group to promote open research on campus. You can follow him on Twitter @TylerShimko.


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