Researchers at Pa.’s top universities take to the web to fund projects
Young researchers at Pennsylvania’s top universities are turning to the general public to fund science experiments.
Using a crowdfunding platform called experiment.com, four researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have raised nearly $12,000, and three researchers at Penn State University have raised more than $21,000, all in the name of science.
Their projects range from understanding the coloring of jumping spiders to understanding the genetics of skin color. In most cases, said researchers who spoke to the Trib, the funds are a way to stretch grant dollars and introduce the public to the time, energy and rigor of scientific experimentation.
“In our line of work, we don’t need a lot of money after we get the big-ticket items,” said Daniel Zurek, a Pitt postdoc who raised about $7,000 to better understand why jumping spiders come in so many colors when they are limited in how many colors they see.
“You can make that money go a long way in the kind of research that we do,” he said.
Experiment.com was founded in 2012 by Denny Luan and Cindy Wu, undergraduates at the University of Washington who wanted to research hospital-acquired infections, but were only able to get a small amount of money to do so. They started the crowdfunding platform with the idea that the public might be interested in funding highly exploratory projects if they could be part of the process.
Researchers such as Zurek send experiment.com a proposal on the work for which they want to raise funds. If approved, young scientists set up a page, often with a video, describing the work they want to do and where the funds will go. They set an all-or-nothing goal, meaning they raise their entire goal or they get nothing. Experiment.com gets a small cut of what they raise, and budding scientists post lab notes, progress reports and in some cases successes as they go along. Luan said experiment.com has backed more than 500 projects; about 40 percent have been successfully funded.
“A lot of good ideas that are worth funding fall by the wayside,” said Luan.
Even with a successful campaign, not all experiments are successful. A group of student researchers at Pitt trying to genetically engineer the bacteria purported to cause acne raised about $2,000 on experiment.com, but ran into trouble working with the bacteria. The students had more than $30,000 in grants for supplies, travel and stipends from Pitt research labs, but chose to crowdfund because, “We felt guilty about using all of their stuff,” said team member Snehal Sawlani, a bioengineering student.
Research funding has taken hits all over the United States, said Luan. Most NIH grant applications are rejected, not necessarily because of the caliber of the proposal. But research universities do have funding available for student research.
Pitt has an undergraduate research training grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, among other sources of funding intended to help young scientists and other sources of funding for pre-doctoral training. In one case, an experiment.com lab note for a project that would simulate a grant application process as a teaching tool indicated that Pitt matched the amount raised by the group — about $1,200.
Despite those sources of funding, Pitt spokesman Ken Service said it isn’t enough and that university officials applaud student efforts to raise money.
“It’s a limited amount of money,” he said. “We do encourage the students to demonstrate their initiative.”
University of Washington spokesman Norm Arkans agreed, saying, “We have funding, but it’s competitive. There is never enough money to go around.”
Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the university has no formal relationship with the site, despite the appearance of university logos under a section called Partners and Institutions.
Running a crowdfunding campaign is time consuming, and the return on investment is debatable. Zurek, the spider researcher, said that after the initial few hours it took to set up the campaign, he was surprised how much time it took to publicize it and communicate with funders.
“You have to put in disproportionate time in relation to the funding goal,” he said.
But, he said, in the long run, it’s worth it, especially if it gets the general public interested in jumping spiders and science as a whole.
“We plan to really stay in contact with our backers. I think it will be a good experience, in terms of outreach,” he said.
Megha Satyanarayana is a staff writer at Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.