Scientists turn to crowdfunding to support research

Edward Miracco, a biochemist at UCLA, raised $6,215 through crowdfunding to buy extra time on an electron microscope for his study of an enzyme that helps cancer cells grow.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

UC San Diego graduate student Alex Piel is studying the family dynamics and habitats of chimpanzees in Tanzania’s savanna. The research requires tracking animals, retrieving fecal samples and then testing to confirm genetic links.

It does not come cheap.

So after tapping traditional funding help from UC and other sources, Piel and Fiona Stewart, his wife and collaborator, recently decided to try their luck on the Internet. They posted a description of their project and an appeal to the public for money on Experiment, an online crowdfunding site devoted to science.

It worked well. They raised $9,055 — just over their goal. All but $600, though, came from family, friends and colleagues.


Through Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, ArtistShare and other websites, crowdfunding is well established for raising money for political causes, the arts and charity. Its use in science, however, is still in the test tube phase.

Although scientists, particularly younger ones, are embracing the idea of seeking donations for funding chemical supplies, microscope and lab time and field travel, some are finding that it’s easier to pierce the mysteries of DNA nanotechnology than it is to hit up strangers for spare change.

One scientist likened his own crowdfunding attempt to selling Girl Scout cookies.

But Piel, 35, who is in Britain to finish his lab work, thinks it’s worth the effort. “I think scientists should try just about anything that has the possibility of supporting their work,” he said.

Some scientists report that projects with an emotional pull have more resonance.

UC Riverside chemistry professor Michael Pirrung raised about $5,100 so a lab team member could stay on for an extra month to continue producing a possible kidney cancer therapy. Because of donors’ personal interest in the disease, most of the money came from strangers, said Pirrung, who also receives substantial federal funding.

The emotional tug, however, may not be as strong for some other science projects “compared to something like music or animal rescue,” he said.

Science crowdfunding needs to “build community around a cause,” said Una Osili, research director at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.


That seems to be occurring now that mid- and late-career scientists are following the example of younger colleagues and are starting to adopt crowdfunding, she added.

Multiple commercial and nonprofit websites such as RocketHub, Experiment, Consano and SciFund Challenge focus on science funding, and some similar sites have tried to do so and already folded. Universities, meanwhile, are starting their own online efforts as well.

There is no central tally of how much money crowdfunding raises for science. (Some of the companies take a commission; in most cases, it’s 8% if the project is fully funded.)

All agree, however, that the online donations are tiny compared with the more than $60 billion a year in federal non-defense research funding, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. But those federal funds have been stagnant in recent years and competition is fierce, spurring interest in alternatives like crowdfunding.

Many scientists say Web-based fundraisers can aid early small-scale investigations that later lead to a federal grant application or can support extra supplies or travel that grants didn’t cover.

A potential concern is in the vetting of projects, analysts say. Federal agencies and private foundations require expert juries to carefully review the intellectual merits and possible impact of grant proposals.

Crowdfunding sites, particularly those affiliated with universities, say they try to screen research projects for possible fraud and topics that seem frivolous or impossible. But ultimately online funding decisions are out of the hands of experts.

“Crowd appeal is the ultimate arbiter,” said Edward Derrick, a program director at the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

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.