Universities' crowdfunding sites try to tap wider networks of alumni and donors while protecting their campus brand name. UCLA Spark was launched this week, and other schools with such sites include UC San Francisco, Georgia Tech, the University of Virginia and Arizona State.
Edward Miracco, a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry at UCLA, was in a successful trial run on the UCLA funding site. He recently raised $6,215 to buy extra time on an electron microscope to try to solve the high-resolution structure of the telomerase enzyme, which plays a central role in allowing cancer cells to grow. The ultimate goal is to develop drugs that block the enzyme.
Miracco, who receives substantial federal grants, was pleased by the extra money. He was also glad that he could avoid more complicated grant applications.
But the crowdfunding took much more work than he expected. Miracco had to create an online video that explains his research, send numerous emails, and write Facebook and Twitter posts in the type of self-promotion that he and some other scientists concede does not come naturally.
Most of his 37 donors were relatives and friends. "It's very, very difficult to convince strangers to donate money to things," Miracco said.
Like many of those seeking online funds, Miracco, 30, offered perks for donors: a public tweet of thanks for a $10 donation and a 3-D printed copy of the enzyme structure for $500. No one grabbed the big one for $5,000: Miracco's offer to come to the benefactor's home or workplace to talk about science.
Beyond T-shirts or DVDs, the chance for the public to learn more about research is a draw for crowdfunding sites.
"We like to take the magic that happens in the creating of science and enable researchers to share that," said Denny Luan, a co-founder of Experiment, which recently changed its name from Microryza.
UC San Diego's Piel promised donors to the chimpanzee research "monthly updates, not only describing exciting stories from the African bush (!), but also on the progress of the genetic analyses."
Those donors are not the types who "want their name on a stadium," said Piel, who also is affiliated with the University of Cambridge. And if he and Stewart can show how important the financial support was, then the two anthropologists may try another crowdfunding round.
"You have to be able to swallow your pride and be able to ask," he said.