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Inside Experiment.com’s effort to be the Kickstarter of science

The reward is in the research.

Feb 29, 2020, 1:45 pm*

Internet Culture

 

Cynthia McKelvey

Daniel Zurek had a hunch, but he needed to prove it. He wanted to know if color vision in certain species of jumping spiders evolved alongside the colorful coats of fur the males wear. But he needed specimens for his research and had no money to go out and get them. Unlikely to win a major federal grant and with few options to fund this small but crucial first step in his project, he turned to the Internet for help.

Experiment.com is a little like its more mainstream crowdfunding counterpart Kickstarter, but instead of getting things like mugs and T-shirts in exchange for funding a product, backers at Experiment.com get science. They get access to videos and notes from the researchers in the field and access to the project’s results. By funding the work, they get to virtually come along for the ride.

Zurek and his colleague posted a video explaining their project to the site and asked for $6,700 to cover their travel costs, filming, and field work supplies. By the time their campaign ended, they had raised $7,357. While the team was in the field, they posted video diaries so backers could see how their progress was going.

For a lot of researchers like Zurek, Experiment.com is a great way to get a new project off the ground. His lab won a National Science Foundation grant out of the results he got from his Experiment.com-funded project. For other researchers, the platform provides a way to finally get around to that nagging little project that they can’t quite roll into their other grants.

“What works best is if the scientist is really transparent about their protocols, why they’ve come up with this idea.” 

Experiment.com co-founder Cindy Wu told the Daily Dot those little pet projects are part of what inspired her to start the website, and she’s seen the positive effects first-hand. The results from one of her undergraduate school projects prompted her toward a new line of research, but she needed a little boost, about $5,000, to get going. Her adviser told her that small grants for undergrads like her just didn’t exist.

He gave her a little of his own grant money to start the project, but the experience got her thinking. Surely other students have been in her position and not been so lucky with funding. She started pitching the idea for Experiment.com to professors, graduate students, and her peers.

“They all said that they would use the website,” she said. “They always named a specific project that they knew government wouldn’t fund.”

Shrinking pots

Typically researchers get money for large-scale, several-year projects from government agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH.) But cuts in government spending on basic research means the pots of money that these institutes can offer researchers are shrinking. According to NPR, the NIH budget has shrunk by 20 percent since 2004. And that money doesn’t just go to funding the science itself, but also toward salaries for the skilled workers carrying out the research.

To win a grant, researchers need to make their studies clearly applicable to society, as well as have some preliminary data to show they’re both capable of the work and to show support for their hypotheses.

Wu said the narrative for a lot of projects goes something like this: “Well I’ve had this idea for so long, but I don’t have any preliminary data and it’s not going to be competitive enough against other [grant] proposals. So I may as well just propose a different idea that I’ve already done in the lab, and then use that money for those side projects,” she explained. “We found that to be a pretty common thing in science today.”

It can also be hard to get funding in a newly formed lab or for young graduate students. New labs are often given some stimulus money to get going, Zurek told the Daily Dot, but that money is meant just to get the lab up and running.

“They always named a specific project that they knew government wouldn’t fund.”

Getting the money for the field trip on Experiment.com “meant we could carry that out right away,” said Zurek, a neuroethologist and sensory ecologist. “We could either wait for major funding, or we would really have to cut into the start up funds [for the lab], which have to go into sustaining essential maintenance in the lab.”

Of course, as with any crowdfunding platform, it’s not all success stories, and the effort that goes into an Experiment.com campaign can hamper the progress of young graduate students—not unlike the traditional funding process. 

Crystal Weaver is a graduate student at San Francisco State University. She tried to use Experiment.com to fund her project studying the helpful bacteria that live on eelgrass—a vital component to maintaining coastal ecosystems in Northern California. She didn’t have as much success as Zurek, only making it a little past halfway to her goal before time was up on her campaign. According to Experiment.com’s policies, funds are not granted unless campaigners meet their total funding goal.

Weaver has also turned to several grants and scholarships to try to fund her work, with moderate success. But all the effort she’s poured into scraping money together only adds to the stress of balancing her lab work with her course work, she told the Daily Dot.

“It’s been a huge effort. It’s been something that kind of bothers me that grad students have to focus on how to fund their own research when I’m juggling classes and work,” she said. “I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out how to fund my research. But it’s worthwhile because I believe so strongly in it.”

Weaver said that the hustle for funding is making her rethink a career in academic research. However, she said she would also try Experiment.com again. She attributed her failure to reach her goals to a lack of presence on social media—something that Zurek said helped get his project noticed by backers and journalists looking to tell his story. She also said that the timing of her campaign coincided with a big work crunch at school, making it difficult for her to devote the time to promoting her project.

How to get funded

Wu had her own ideas of what makes or breaks a good project. Projects that appeal to a broad audience are more likely to get funded, she said. People like to get involved as well. She cited that one project sought to determine if animals preferred wild corn over genetically modified strains, so anyone who pledged a certain amount to the project was sent some corn to participate in the experiment. They were given one GMO ear and one wild ear and told to monitor which ear of corn was eaten more.

Another project looked to see if a coal train passing through a town in Washington was affecting air quality. Wu said that many of the backers for that project were from the town itself.

“What works best is if the scientist is really transparent about their protocols, why they’ve come up with this idea,” Wu said. “During the campaign, they post their notes and photos and protocols. We share those through our Twitter and social media channel.”

For Wu, Experiment.com is part of an inevitable shift to open science.

She also said it’s better to ask for money in small increments, rather than to try to get the huge six-figure funds that one might ask for in a government grant.

“Say the project needs $5,000 to start initial experiments. Those campaigns show that they can accomplish the first part of the project with just 5,000 wind up raising 200 or 300 percent,” Wu said. But some larger campaigns have also been successful.

It’s hard to say what role crowdfunding will play in scientific research as years go by. Zurek believes that the government will always have to pay for the lion’s share of research.

“To support a lab full time, you’re always going to need these six-figure grants, which crowdfunding is not going to replace,” he said. He added that universities aren’t always on board with their employees tapping into third-party resources for funding. Some universities want to start their own crowdfunding platforms and tap into alumni networks, including the University of Pittsburgh, where Zurek is a postdoctoral associate.

“We at Pitt would not be allowed to start another Experiment.com crowdfunding project because they want to launch their own platform,” he said.

Weaver, on the other hand, sees crowdfunding as the wave of the future. Though smaller projects tend to be the most successful, Weaver doesn’t think it has to be that way.

“Because it’s that Internet platform, it has a huge potential outreach that it can provide to any project,” she said. “It’s so huge that it doesn’t have the limitations of needing it to be small projects. You can have a goal of $100,000 and get funded because it only takes one person to have that money and see it for its value.”

Obviously it depends on the backers. Wu said that she and her team are trying to get more repeat backers. Right now, there are about 1,150 people who have backed more than one project, but Wu would like to see that number grow. That’s the thinking behind Experiment.com’s open access journal. If people can see the fruits of their funding in real time, then Wu is hopeful they’ll be more likely to donate to another project. To that end, Experiment.com also guides researchers in telling their science stories in a way that everyone can understand and relate to.

For Wu, Experiment.com is part of an inevitable shift to open science.

“My opinion is that all science should be open and should be open access. I think what we’re trying to do with experiment is show that is possible and that there are benefits to being open,” she said. “I think it’s inevitable in the future that all research papers will be open access. That’s going to happen and we want to make that happen faster.”

Screengrab via Morehouse Lab/YouTube

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*First Published: Jan 4, 2016, 11:00 am