Bats and bacteria: Students, scientists turn to crowdfunding for research projects

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew
An injured Florida bonneted bat recuperates at Zoo Miami, in this handout picture taken in 2014 and provided by Zoo Miami. Scientists know little about the critically endangered brown, snout-nosed creature, which emits unusual audible noises as it flies and whose population is believed to number only a few hundred. The bonneted bats exist only in southern Florida. However, last week, the Miami Bat Squad announced that it had located what is believed to be the first known roost of the rare creature in decades. To match Feature USA-FLORIDA/BATS REUTERS/Dustin Smith/Zoo Miami/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: ANIMALS ENVIRONMENT) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

A Calgary grad student is taking a page out of Zach Braff’s playbook and is asking the public to fund her personal project. Not to film an indie movie, but rather to study the migratory habits of bats.

And she’s not alone. Crowdfunding – the hot funding strategy of the 21st century – has become a bit of a haven for scientific research and innovation as government funding dries up and money gets tight.

University of Calgary’s Erin Baerwald recently took the leap into crowdfunded science, posting a call for assistance on Indiegogo for her doctoral research into the migratory pattern on bats and the impact of wind turbines.

As of Tuesday morning, Baerwald had collected more than $6,000 toward her target of $15,000, much of it from those with a specific interest in her research topic.

"There’s limited funds for basic research and things that aren’t going to make money, things that aren’t research and development (with an) industrial focus, it is a big problem," Baerwald told CBC News.

Baerwald’s plan is perhaps indicative of a shift in the way researchers fund their projects. With North American governments spending less on scientific endeavors, students and researchers alike could be tasked with securing funding from personal patrons, one piece at a time.

“It is certainly never going to replace government funding, which is in the billions and is very necessary,” said Nick Dragojlovic, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, with a keen interest in crowdfunding.

“But I think the reason why people are looking into crowdfunding is because we’ve had cuts and redirection of government funding to more applied research. Crowdfunding can be quite helpful in funding blue sky, not directly commercializable, research.”

Dragojlovic operates Funded Science, which chronicles the inroads the scientific community has made into the world of crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding has come into its own in recent years thanks to sites such as Indiegogo, Kickstarter and Canada’s FundRazr, with thousands of projects finding the money they need through donations made by the public – usually in exchange for public acknowledgement and small gifts.

The sites are perhaps most widely known for funding creative projects such as movies and video games. Filmmaker Zach Braff funded his latest offering, Wish I Was Here, through Kickstarter, as did the makers of the Veronica Mars movie and many others.

Mainstream funding sites like Kickstarter and FundRazr have hosted science-based projects, and there are a bevy of research-specific sites finding their footing.

Experiment.com is backed by several post-secondary institutions including the University of Washington and Harvard Medical School, allowing students and researchers to post their projects and solicit donations from interested supporters. There’s also Benefunder, which connects researchers with potential donors.

With either route, the benefits are obvious and go beyond just securing money. By connecting directly with the public, researchers have the ability to create excitement around their work.

“Public outreach is good generally because it connects scientists with society and makes science part of everyday life,”Dragojlovic said. “If you can connect with an interest group that is interested in the specific field you can generate substantial amounts of funding.”

An ongoing project on FundRazr further highlights the benefits of crowdfunded science initiatives. American Gut is a human microbiome project that, in laymen speak, studies the microbes in our bellies and compares it to samples from other areas of the country and world.

So far, some $700,000 has been raised in the U.S., and another $20,000 in the U.K., to fund the study. Those who donate also receive test kits that allow them to participate in the trial – essentially allowing the group to fund the study through the same audience that is joining its data stream.

“They are very innovative in the way they have done it, and I think it bodes well for how other types of longer-term studies and research can be done,” FundRazr founder Daryl Hatton told Yahoo Canada News.

“It involves a community that is concerned about it, while at the same time it is funding a larger study than they could do with just a grant.”

So is crowdfunding the future of scientific research in Canada? Dragojlovic says it will never replace the need for government funding, but it should be something young researchers embrace in the future.  

“For this to become a long term and sustainable part of scientific funding, I think faculty and researchers have to get on board with the idea of public outreach as another thing they do as part of their careers,” he said. “That’s where the real promise is.”