Friday, December 16, 2011

Observations From the Peanut Gallery

My tweet (boxed in red): "Congrats & Well Done to ALL #SciFund participants; thanks to ALL funders & promoters! IMHO Where you began --> How far you've come = Awesome"

As "Dr. Zen" Faulkes put it just a few minutes ago, "There will be much more analysis of the #SciFund challenge in the days and months to come. It was a social experiment, and we are all scientists, after all."

And indeed, there's already been "a quick and dirty analysis" done by Jaime Ashander.

There will be number crunching. There will be variables, and various reactions across the spectrum, not least the hairpin turn that comes when a highly intense undertaking screeches to a halt. For at least a couple of people, that hairpin turn is about to zoom off in the direction of preparing a presentation for next month's Science Online conference.

In any event, in one form or another, there's a lot of processing yet to occur. On my end, I've got a lot of raw data yet to assemble. This month has also seen more trips to specialists as part of my caregiving, which for us means long drives and other forms of time away from my own writing project. Be that as it may, I've given myself the deadline of having a rough version of the realtime narrative section drafted before the New Year -- especially since I think we're done with doctor visits until January.

Right now the glow of adrenalin is settling on where #SciFund is. I want to show a bit of where #SciFund was, when the past 45 days were still largely unknown territory. Below is Chapter 2 from my work in progress (I write as a layperson, for a lay audience). I've translated my footnotes into live links.

Chapter 2: What Is Science Crowdfunding, and Why Do It?

Crowdfunding is not charity, but an exchange. The person pursuing funding is offering a good or a service, just as the individual in an office or a store does, or someone offering a product online. Rather than being used to buy a finished product, the funds aid the act of creation. Instead of approaching a granting organization or venture capitalists, the funding-seeker uses social media to approach the general public.

Crowdfunding is traditionally associated with the arts. Three weeks before the #SciFund site launched on RocketHub, Kickstarter announced that it had hit its one millionth backer. Of its 10,395 successful projects reported in July, 29.9 percent had been in music and 29.3 percent in film and video. Percentages had dropped significantly after that, with technology, the closest category to science, weighing in at 1.4 percent, rounded up. The only category with a lower ranking had been fashion.

So why were scientists joining artists in seeking help from the general public?

"There were some citizens of Detroit, a couple of months back, who said, 'You know what Detroit needs? We need a big metal statue of RoboCop in Detroit. That's going to make everything better!'"

Jai Ranganathan stood before an audience at the Open Science Summit in Mountain View, CA. No, not stood. He worked the stage, dressed in gunmetal gray, pacing before a many-times-larger-than-life screen and chopping his hand through the air.

"So, what did they do? They went to a site called Kickstarter. And they put up this proposal for saying, 'Hey, we want to put this big metal statue of RoboCop in Detroit. It's going to turn everything around.' And they got almost three thousand people to kick in almost $70,000. Fifty dollars here, hundred dollars there. Three dollars there."

Some scientists had tried crowdfunding. For the most part, they hadn't succeeded. And one of the reasons they hadn't succeeded, Ranganathan said, was because they'd worked in isolation.

And they couldn't talk to people. Even conservation biologists, who spent most of their waking hours (and some sleeping ones) out in the world, had a tough time communicating with the general public, as Jai had learned when he had spoken with one on a podcast.

It had given him an idea.

"We thought, let's try something different," he told the crowd in Mountain View. "Let's try something with no budget whatsoever and no time whatsoever. That's going to work much better."

With public funding for science hovering around 20 percent and "a wide red swath of the country still in denial over evolution and climate change," what did they have to lose?

Kevin Fomalont, a Neuroscience PhD student at Emory University, studies depression and is investigating the contributions of early life stress to the development of mental illness, not just neurologically but as an illness of the whole body. He is one of the #SciFund forty-niners.

"Right now I am glad to have a job," he wrote, shortly after #SciFund launched, "but it remains difficult to fund our laboratory's small projects that do not fit well into a federal grant. All scientists are struggling with the stagnation in federal funding for research."

Scientists had already approached private companies, foundations, and individual benefactors for help, he added. In an era of slashed funding and controversy over scientific theory and practice, crowdfunding had become the next logical step.

Kristina Killgrove pointed out the Catch-22 in science funding. "[Y]ou need to have a research project to get a job," she wrote, "but you need the academic affiliation a job provides you to apply for grant funding for your project." She couldn't apply for large grants because she didn't have a permanent affiliation. What's more, her field, anthropology, was not a "hard" science, and was thus less likely to be funded.

Crowdfunding couldn't replace traditional means of raising money for scientific projects, she added. But, if successful, it could catch the attention of traditional funders. Writing a proposal for a large grant took time and energy away from actual scientific work. If a bid was unsuccessful, she said, "you’re back at square one, and have to spend more time applying for money."

But crowdfunding for science was about more than just money. It was even about more than the pursuit of knowledge, including knowledge regarded by the general public with a mixture of fascination, bewilderment, and, at times, fear.

"The real purpose of the #SciFund Challenge is to engage scientists with general audiences," Ranganathan said, in an interview with #SciFund participant Holly Menninger the day the challenge launched. "I think there is a big problem in the U.S. and the world today, which is that I feel that science is really disconnected from the general public."

Scientific research and scientists are well regarded by most Americans, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center. The survey, which measured public opinion on religion and science in the U.S., indicated that 84 percent of respondents viewed science as having a mostly positive impact on society. The same favorable answer was given by 80 percent of people who attended religious services at least once a week.

A 2011 study on Public Attitudes to Science, conducted in the United Kingdom, showed that 79 percent of people felt that, “on the whole, science will make our lives easier,” while 54 percent believed that, “the benefits of science are greater than any harmful effect.”

But 51 percent claimed that they received too little information about science. "Many are still concerned about what scientists choose to do 'behind closed doors,'" reported Ipsos MORI and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which had conducted the survey in association with the British Science Association.

The #SciFund Challenge sought to open those doors. Every posted project and video offered the general public a glimpse into the scientific process, in plain English terms. The scientists asking for help were not stereotyped, anonymous figures in white lab coats. They each had a name, a face, a history, and a passion.

They dressed in tees (sometimes under their white lab coats) and bluejeans -- and, when rappelling to a forest canopy, hardhats. Or they wore kitten heels and a strapless dress, even when those clothes were packed beside "explosive looking" camo-colored boxes holding steel camera traps. Or they wore a baseball cap and layers beneath a field coat, to look for algae in a half-frozen pond.

And when not doing scientific research, they could be found playing guitar in a band, or scrapbooking. They posted photographs of a flower or a sunrise on Flickr. They tweeted about cleaning their apartment.

Like the artists dominating the crowdfunding arena, these scientists loved their work. It's why marine ecologist Jarrett Byrnes was passionate about counting fish "while in a thick wetsuit, sucking air through a regulator, getting thrown about by big waves, with sand and grit swirling in front of [his] face," a task he classified as "Really hard." He sought funds to get just a bit more data, so that he could better understand how life was changing in the ocean's kelp forests. (Byrnes wasn't just a #SciFund cofounder. He was also a client.) It's why cancer researcher and music teacher Marisa Alonso Nuñez had spent her first #SciFund Saturday -- both day and night -- in the lab with her colleagues, grooving on classical music, while being frustrated by the microscopic bits of genes that were getting in the way of the molecular building blocks she tried to line up.

The scientists engaged in #SciFund responded not only to uncertainty and fear in the general public, but also to institutionalized worries from within. "[T]here's no particular reason to talk to regular people," Ranganathan pointed out, adding that the opposite was often true. "[I]f you do, maybe you feel you would be misconstrued. Maybe your fellow scientists will just look down upon you for some unknown reason…. But imagine a world where scientists were rewarded for talking to the general public by getting money from them. That changes all the incentives."

While important, the money was not his primary focus. "The main purpose is to communicate excitement about science," he said. "That's the point."

"I’ve had an online presence for years," "Bone Girl" Kristina Killgrove wrote, "but I’ve never directly engaged the public in my research. Joining the #SciFund Challenge seemed the perfect way to do this – to bring my research to the people who are most interested in it and to convince them to become stakeholders in the process of science."

For many of the forty-niners, this challenge was also about learning a new skill set. From the beginning of his crowdfunding experiment, Jai Ranganathan had laid his "hidden agenda" squarely on the line: "[Y]ou can’t raise money from broad audiences, unless you can speak to them in an engaging way (in regular language) about why your research matters….get scientists back out into the public sphere with the communication skills they’ll need to influence the public."


Prof. Matthew Hirschey at Duke University was skeptical early on. "Would [scientists] rather spend a week writing a grant for $50,000 or $500,000? How about a month of crowdsourcing for funding? For $1000??? I doubt it."

Writing on August 2, five days after the #SciFund Challenge was first announced, Hirschey also cautioned that the general public was not equipped to evaluate the rigor of funding proposals and could thus "weaken the grant making process." On the solicitation side, he pointed out that "scientists are not always good at 'selling' their science," despite his observation that "Most scientists aren't afraid of engaging with the public, and welcome opportunities to do so."

#SciFund's founders and participants who had signed up early were unperturbed. Skepticism was a hallmark of science, and as such invited the testing of assumptions. Ranganathan's responses to Hirschey included addressing his concern that the general public could not evaluate the rigor of proposals.

"Peer review happens," Ranganathan wrote, "just not in the way that most scientists are used to." He added that physicists had a place to post their work for public peer review -- -- before they submitted those papers to scholarly journals.

Not long before #SciFund launched, an item in arXiv had made big news in the popular press. The press had focused on the finding itself, not on its early disclosure. Lay audiences might not have known that evidence suggesting the existence of a faster-than-light neutrino had initially been posted on for the purpose of getting peer-review responses and a good reality check. It had -- to the tune of more than 80 papers.

"I can imagine a very similar system for crowdfunding for science, where projects to be funded are posted and review happens after they are posted," Ranganathan wrote. "Does that infrastructure exist now? No. But I think that it will quickly emerge if science crowdfunding takes off, which is the point of the #SciFund Challenge."

Miriam Goldstein knew what it was like to feel the pinch. A doctoral student at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and a writer at Deep Sea News, she had "made scientific equipment by combining salvaged parts, scrap lumber from Home Depot, and rubber tie-downs." She expressed her faith in the #SciFund Challenge shortly after its announcement, and backed that faith up by contributing some of the funding, herself.

But in addition to peer review and other concerns, the idea of crowdfunding science was not without some controversy. One might view the #SciFund Challenge as an experiment not only in raising money, but also in going outside the influence of U.S. policymakers and directly engaging (and gauging) the public's opinion of science and scientists in a way that the polls could not: with their own hard cash.

Brian Romans, an assistant professor of geoscience at Virginia Tech, cautioned against a potential backlash. "[I]t would be a shame if the excitement around the concept and anecdotes of success of crowd-funding led to continued erosion of ‘traditional’ funding because the powers-that-be decide science can find money elsewhere."

Raising money to hire an assistant in her work with Asian elephants, #SciFund participant Shermin de Silva echoed Romans' concern when, eleven days after launch, #SciFund celebrated its second fully-funded project. "Some worry that crowdfunding, if at all successful, might serve as an unwitting argument for privatizing this funding even further," she wrote.

And public -- government -- funding comes with conditions that private funding can circumvent. Cian Dawson, who worked in science and environmental education reform and who holds a masters degree in geophysics, maintained that "[P]ublic funding of science in the public interest … results in public data. Private funding too easily leads to proprietary data and information." She added that while crowdfunding could work for smaller, quick-turnaround projects, hard-to-fund longer, big-ticket items didn't seem well-suited to the practice.

"Dr. Zen" Faulkes, using #SciFund to raise money for his crayfish studies, addressed that difference in focus. "Big science is a wonderful thing," he wrote on the #SciFund blog. "But we need new ways to fund small science." He argued that traditional funding agencies "are almost invariably set up to handle large amounts of money." They want not only accountability for those big bucks; they want a track record.

Trying to establish that track record through funding smaller projects didn't fit into a big-ticket proposal framework. Faulkes added, "There are many projects where a few bucks here and there will grease a lot of wheels."

Although not the be-all and end-all of a new era in science funding, it seemed as though the #SciFund crowdfunding model could fill a niche that had remained largely unexplored.

Some science projects had been crowdfunded successfully prior to #SciFund, notably the Quail Diaries, posted on Kickstarter by biologists Jennifer D. Calkins and Jennifer M. Gee. Jai Ranganathan used their project as the prime example, "being perhaps the first to actually raise cash for their research via crowdfunding."

Calkins and Gee had also caught the attention of Thomas Lin at The New York Times, who wrote, "As research budgets tighten at universities and federal financing agencies, a new crop of Web-savvy scientists is hoping the wisdom — and generosity — of the crowds will come to the rescue."

How, then, did #SciFund differ from those earlier projects? Sheer force of numbers. Never before had crowdfunding occurred as a networked group effort among dozens of scientists. According to Ranganathan, to date, "It is the biggest crowdfunding for science venture in the U.S. by far. In fact, we have more projects up right now than all other crowdfunding for science efforts in the U.S. combined."

Or, as he had told the crowd in Mountain View, ten days before launch, "The key thing here is that even though each scientist is going to be crowdfunding for their own project, no scientist is alone…. Because if you are alone as a scientist and say, 'Hey, you, you have to learn how to do all these things in order to create a video presentation. You have to be able to translate your science to the general public,' forget it. Impossible, for someone doing it alone."

Possible -- and wonderful -- if you're part of a tribe. Which is how I began to view the forty-niners as their community blossomed.

Elissa Malcohn's Deviations and Other Journeys
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