Australian scientists are capitalizing on the power of the internet to fund their latest research.
Melbourne, Australia – Brown stones have the power to enthuse Alastair Tait.
Australia’s Nullarbor Plain – flat, hot, treeless and with no civilization for 500 kilometers around – is his playground.
The geologist specializes in meteorite research. The arid plain is, he says, a treasure trove.
But expeditions into it are expensive. Since this year he could not obtain any state funding, Tait decided to try crowd funding using the web platform Pozible – his success overwhelmed him.
“We asked for 4,000 [Australian] dollars,” says Tait, a PhD student at Melbourne’s Monash University – around 3,110 US dollars. “We got 12,209.”
The extra money meant he was able to get a bigger team together and lengthen the project.
Crowd funding has been used for scientific projects in Australia for the past couple of years. Researchers are excited by the new possibilities it presents.
Melanie Thomson and Michelle Harvey of Deakin University gathered 10,000 Australian dollars on Pozible to conduct research on using maggots to kill bacteria.
They used soft toys – one representing a maggot, the other a bacterium – to explain their project in an online video.
Can eye stem cells cure blindness? What can neuroscientists contribute towards the fight against the acidification of the oceans? How can the taboo topic diarrhoea be better explained? Scientists are looking to fund all sorts of projects.
Crowd funding is a blessing for young researchers, says oceanographer Ben McNeil. “Traditional research funding just doesn’t work,” he says.
Only established scientists with long CVs and scientific publications now have a chance of securing state funding, he says.
“But 82 per cent of discoveries which are later given Nobel prizes are made by PhD students or young researchers,” he says.
That is why he founded the platform Thinkable.org at the University of New South Wales. Researchers have also successfully used the website to collect thousands of dollars for projects.
McNeil now has a new idea: asking people to sponsor a young scientist with a small amount each month or year.
“Of course then the scientists have to keep people up to date and present their results accordingly.”
A video from the laboratory or a smartphone interview with a colleague is usually be enough, he says.
Those who are most successful are those who keep in touch with their “fans” via Twitter and Facebook.
It is important to make science accessible to all, says Deb Verhoeven, professor for media and communication at Deakin University in Melbourne.
“Scientists usually arrive with very academic synopses,” she says. “But you can usually tell an exciting story about most projects, once you take them out of the laboratory.”
That takes time, she concedes. “But you have to consider that conventional applications for project finance are much more complicated – and only one in five is successful.”
Her university has collected 125,000 Australian dollars in two years via crowd funding. The money is all going to various projects, with the university monitoring spending.
The bulk of state-sponsored research is organized by the Australian Research Council. Its CEO, Aidan Byrne, sees potential in crowd funding.
But he rejects the idea that the state might pull out of funding scientific projects in times of empty coffers.
“That would be very disadvantageous to projects which don’t focus on popular topics,” says Byrne.
“Every day, there are projects important for humanity which don’t necessarily capture people’s imagination. Studies on pure mathematics, for example, whose use perhaps won’t be clear until far in the future.”
The problem with crowd funding could be that the public will only be attracted to supporting projects featuring cute animals or current topics, or on the other hand, that they will flock pseudo-scientific projects such as investigations into UFOs or aliens from outer space, says Byrne.
“But most projects are checked over by colleagues, so that should rule out the wackiest projects,” he adds.
Tait’s meteorite research is far removed from that.
“Meteorites can help us understand how the Earth was formed,” he says.
It is possible to find certain chemicals in meteorites and asteroids. “We never know beforehand what we’re going to find. We’re always looking for new things.”
His crowd funders are rewarded with tektites – pieces of glass which are created when meteorites strike the Earth.
Particularly generous donors are awarded the Nullarbor Cookbook – ideas for young scientists trying to feed themselves in the desert, far away from civilization.