Cuts in government research and higher education leave many early career scientists wondering if they made a mistake in dreaming about a career in basic research. At a recent NASA Planetary Science Division meeting, young researches began to come to terms with the new facts of life. There is not enough money from historical sources to fund their research careers. Much of modern philanthropy involves tossing a fish to a starving multitude. Using philanthropy to fund basic research has the great potential to increase the supply of fish by providing solutions to world problems.
In response to dwindling budgets and no interest in small projects, smart scientists are turning to other sources to fund their innovations. Crowdfunding has become a viable option. On crowdfunding platforms, a researcher can post a project with a request to fund the program via donations. Although “the crowd” still prefers to fund toys and entertainment, thousands of small projects have received billions in donations from over 500 active websites.
If a scientist can sell an interesting research project, funding can be obtained from public contributions. For example, a neuroscientist, Dr. Ethan O. Perlstein, has been able to fund research on how amphetamines damage your brain using RocketHub. Dan Jaffe, a Seattle research chemist, has funded research on the impact of coal dust from trains on local air quality using Microryza. What these projects have in common is serious science, coupled with an ability to generate enough public interest to fund small ($20K) research projects. Governments are also getting into the crowdfunding space. After 5 years of little progress, Portland’s Gateway Green park raised over $120K on Indiegogo for initial design.
Although biomedical and environmental research topics are popular with the public, space has made a big splash with over $1.5 million pledged for the ARKYD Space Telescope on Kickstarter. So the question for Planetary Scientists is, of course, can you make your research topic interesting to the public? Yes, you’re fascinated by this piece of esoteric knowledge, but will your results be of interest or use to others? If the answer is yes, Scientific American suggests you might join the researchers who’ve funded their projects using websites like Microryza or Petridish to connect directly to the public.
So, what if you’ve always been a science buff and have a bit of spare cash left over after weekend shopping? You can donate to a scientist to help fund a project that interests you. If you don’t find something on Microryza or Petridish, do a search for crowdfunding + your pet topic. You may find something on one of the other sites. If Americans are serious about keeping the US innovation engine moving, individuals should begin supporting science directly instead of leaving it up to a government that lacks the resources. Consider making a donation to a research scientist now.