Allison Jo Mercer, a researcher at Georgia Tech, is developing an adhesive based on a brilliantly sticky fish. Her work could some day translate into Band-Aids that don’t pull your hair out when you rip them off, safer bandages for serious wounds, or just a better way to stick your GPS unit to your car window. But when she looked for funding for the idea, the reality of decreased government science spending sunk in deep. “Research funding has been cut, cut, cut,” Mercer told Fast Company.
Meanwhile, crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, by one estimate, gave aspiring project creators $2.7 billion last year alone. This gave Mercer an idea: Why not ask the crowd to back science, too? Though eventually the fish-inspired adhesive got a grant, she pitched an idea for Georgia Tech’s very own crowdfunding site. In May, the school put out a request for projects to feature on “Georgia Tech Starter,” and on Monday it launched the site.
Automatic government spending cuts that went into effect this year have made grants harder to come by, and Georgia Tech isn’t the only research institution that has sought to fund its researchers through crowdfunding. Arizona State University and theUniversity of Virginia have both partnered with a crowdfunding site called Useed. The University of Vermont has partnered with another called Launcht. And the University of Utah has partnered with still another called RocketHub.
Georgia Tech’s site is independent, which gives the school a couple of advantages.
For one, it adds a review process. Projects must be submitted by a faculty member. They’re vetted by a department chair, who looks for conflicts of interests and makes sure that the project can actually be completed for the budget requested. This helps prevent backers funding research that isn’t feasible. “There are no guarantees in life,” Mercer says. “However, before [a project] even hits the page, we ensure that it’s possible to be executed.”
The other advantage is that instead of paying a fee to a commercial platform, funded projects pay a 35% fee to Georgia Tech in exchange for running the review process, site administration, and lab facility upkeep. This is relatively high in the crowdfunding world-Kickstarter charges a 5% fee to its projects and Indiegogo charges a 4% or 9% fee-but it is similar to what universities charge for grants they receive.
Projects on Georgia Tech Starter at launch fall into a familiar crowdfunding format. Generally they feature a video with the researcher explaining his or her project, a funding goal, a running tally of how much has been pledged, and a list of rewards for contribution. Rewards tend toward the experiential. One $5 reward for a honey bee study, for instance, offers “a receipt that you may use for tax purposes.” Another project, which asks contributors to help “shoot lasers into the atmosphere to improve air pollution forecasting!” promises a color plot of the atmosphere for a certain day in exchange for a $50 to $100 pledge. A coral reef research team simply invites all contributors to “join us via our expedition web site.”
“As scientists, we have not done such a great job at showing people the relevance of science and the dividends that funding of science research can pay,” Mercer says. “Wrapped up in the process of crowdfunding for a scientific project, the scientist has gone through the exercise of describing it in a way that the community can understand and get excited about it.”
Anybody who has seen how much more attention the general public paid Miley Cyrus’s twerking incident than it did chemical warfare in Syria would hope that crowdfunding, in which money is granted based solely on public favor, will not replace government grants. “But the more the public understands science,” argues Mercer, “the more they understand what it has done for society and advancements in technology, the more likely it is for the government to fund science.”