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T aking advantage of the combination of social networking and venture capitalism that is "crowdfunding," two UC Santa Barbara scientists launched #SciFund Challenge, an online effort to connect the public with science, and also to fund projects through small-amount donations.

The campaign, which ran in May, is the brainchild of Jarrett Byrnes and Jai Ranganathan, both researchers at UC Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS).

"Our primary goal is to have scientists have outreach and engagement in their daily lives," said Byrnes. The participating scientists submit proposals, a summary of their work, and videos to a site administered by the crowdfunding platform RocketHub. Their proposals are critiqued by the community of participating scientists, and advice is tossed around in forums as to how best to appeal to a broad audience

"The most successful participants are the ones who know how to translate their work well, and do good work getting the word out," said Rangathanan, who spent weeks training #SciFund Challenge scientists in the art of effective modern communications. Projects that can come across as interesting and meaningful tend to get more attention and funding. The priority on approachability has led to some creative and humorous videos.

The #SciFund Challenge had at least 75 scientists from three continents raising funds for their projects, which cover various topics –– from how your genes might influence your vote, to how raising prawns might keep children from contracting a parasite. Those with an interest, curiosity, and generosity can pledge directly to their favorite scientific endeavor in an effort to reach a preset funding goal determined by the project's scientist. If a project meets its funding goal, the scientist gets the money, minus any fees and, roughly, an 8 percent cut to RocketHub. If the project doesn't meet the goal, it's not the end: The scientist still gets the money, but minus fees and a 12 percent cut to RocketHub.

In exchange, project scientists provide regular updates to donors. They also decide what rewards donors get, based on levels of contribution. The first campaign took place late last year, with 49 scientists participating, and raised more than $76,000 in about six weeks. The second campaign during May 2012 had 75 scientists participating, and raised more than $100,000 with 33 projects fully funded.

I thought (#SciFund Challenge) was really well-suited and I was hoping to fill some funding gaps," said Susanne Sokolow, a marine biologist at UC Santa Barbara's Marine Science Institute, whose project, Projet Crevette, is intended to eliminate schistosomiasis, a debilitating condition caused by parasitic worms carried by snails in Senegal, West Africa. By farming prawns, which eat the snails, the project might help the people affected and eventually provide a sustainable and profitable food source.

Both the scientists and their donors are part of a larger study, as Byrnes and Ranganathan compile data provided by RocketHub to find out what works in the long run.

Currently, #SciFund Challenge has proved suitable for smaller projects and newer researchers, although at least one project in the last round raised over $10,000. But it doesn't rule out bigger projects in the future, said Byrnes, pointing to Cancer Research UK, a crowdsourced fund that draws massive donations every year.

Crowdsourcing won't replace the more traditional and bigger funding sources, like the National Science Foundation, said Byrnes. In some cases, a project would not be suitable for crowdsource-type funding. In other cases, crowdfunding can serve as an incubator for new research and innovations, the results of which may go on to fuel grant proposals to foundations. Additionally, these projects would also come with a healthy outreach component.

Other UC Santa Barbara's #SciFund Challenge participants included: Ana Elisa Garcia, Emily Wilson, and Shaun Walbridge, from the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology; Tal Ben-Horin, from the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management; and UC Santa Barbara alum Claudia Makayev.

As for the donors, #SciFund Challenge's creators hope they come away confident in their individual support of scientific research.

"I really hope that donors walk away engaged with both a scientific research project, and an individual scientist. I want them to become interested in and invested in what the scientists they fund are doing," said Byrnes.

Putting the Social (Media) in Science
Ph.D. Student Lindsey Peavey Used Web-Based Crowdfunding to support her Sea Turtle Research

When second-year UC Santa Barbara doctoral student Lindsey Peavey needed funds to conduct open-ocean research for her Ph.D. dissertation on olive ridley sea turtles in the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, she didn’t go to the traditional sources. Rather, she tapped into the growing world of crowdfunding. The concept involves a process similar to one charities and nonprofits use: seeking many donations of all sizes rather than a big chunk of money from a single source. It can be effective for smaller, focused projects. Peavey and each of the other 48 scientists who participated in the “SciFund Challenge” developed a multimedia online fundraising campaign, including a short video about their project and a written narrative explaining why they needed support. Together, they ran a 45-day campaign on RocketHub, a web platform that hosts crowdfunding efforts. Individuals could go to the SciFund page, find a project of interest, and donate directly to the scientist.

“It’s an innovative way for the public to support the science they deem important,” says Peavey, whose $3,243 total was 30 percent more than her goal. “I don’t think it will replace traditional science funding, but it’s a great source of supplemental funding, as well as an outreach tool.” The scientists used e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to drive people to sites promoting research about a variety of topics, from Amazon crayfish and ancient Roman DNA to stress as a factor in genetic mutation. Participating in SciFund forced the researchers to speak in plain language about their research to engage broad audiences. Collectively, they raised more than $76,000 from 1,440 contributors and garnered a good deal of media coverage, including an article in The New York Times.

“I find it amazing that, with few exceptions, those who did well were those who consistently reached out to larger audiences,”
says Jai Ranganathan, an ecologist at UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) who worked with NCEAS post-doctoral researcher and USCB alumnus Jarrett Byrnes to create the SciFund Challenge. “Crowdfunding creates the incentives in science for doing that, rewarding precisely the behavior that is required for scientists to effectively reach audiences with their science message. It could be the secret ingredient that shifts the culture of science in the direction of engagement.” More on the web at: www.rockethub.com/projects/scifund