The current funding climate for scientific research is anything but encouraging, with budget cutbacks and rationed funds making it more and more difficult for scientists to initiate new studies—or to continue to make progress with research in which they have invested intensive time and effort over the course of years, decades, or even an entire career.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that one solution being tested by some researchers is to use social media and technology for “crowdfunding”: raising research money by garnering the interest and support of the general public. Hence, the SciFund Challenge, which has teamed up with RocketHub to provide a platform through which scientists can attract attention to their prospective projects. An integral part of this challenge involves scientists finally being encouraged to prioritize outreach—engaging the public and explaining in plain terms why their research is critical, important, and interesting. This focus on public outreach sometimes falls to the wayside as scientists are forced to spend their time navigating the bureaucracy of garnering grants, and the SciFund Challenge is a great way to bring promotion of science and the spirit of discovery back to a broader audience.
The attraction of this model for fundraising is multifaceted. Despite the lack of adequate science education in the U.S., people are inherently fascinated with new discoveries and exploration. Through efforts such as the SciFund Challenge, people are given the opportunity to 1) learn about up-and-coming research, 2) feel connected to the researchers themselves, 3) choose for themselves which research efforts their money will support and 4) feel a sense of personal investment in scientific endeavors, something that is, unfortunately, rarely available to the general public.
For example, Craig Packer, a biologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, is participating in the SciFund Challenge to raise money for his long-term research program on the lions of the Serengeti population that he has studied for four decades. He and one of his graduate students, Ali Swanson, have placed over 200 cameras across a wide swath of land in Tanzania, an effort that will yield over a million photos of wildlife per year—invaluable data that can be used to answer a variety of ecological questions related to dozens of species.
The catch, as always, is money. The digital infrastructure involved in managing such a massive volume of data comes with a hefty price tag at a time when funding is harder and harder to come by. For example, there is a need to establish such basics as an internet link to the field site, so that the camera images can be transmitted back to Minnesota for analysis. Hence, Packer has decided to reach out to members of the public—many of whom maintain an innate fascination with large, dangerous animals such as lions. The ‘Serengeti Live’ project, which has been posted on Rocket Hub, will make this vast treasure trove of wildlife images available to donors via the web, while also benefiting from the support from interested citizens.
In a society in which nearly every aspect of society is represented in online social networks, it seems a logical progression that science would follow suit. In addition, at a time of great political turmoil and uncertainty, it seems logical that people would become less comfortable with depending upon support from traditional institutions, and are (understandably) instead reaching out to the community at large.
The SciFund Challenge runs through December 15, it will be interesting to see how the funding efforts pan out!