I’ve been impressed with what folks have been able to do at Kickstarter, raising funds to create a product they believe in. In contrast to venture capital or other business investors, Kickstarter contributors are consumers; a vote to support your startup process is a vote for your product. This seems to work well on both sides: consumers get a low-risk way to “shop” for innovative products, and inventors can simultaneously raise funds and test the waters in terms of demand.
So I was intrigued when I came across a Kickstarter-like site… for scientific research projects.
iAMscientist allows researchers to post descriptions of their projects, and interested members of the wider community can pledge funds to support them. Goodbye to lengthy, dense proposals to agencies such as the NSF, NASA, or NIH! Rather than getting your project funded by review from your scientific peers, you instead pitch it to woo the general public.
I can see merits in exposing the public to new ideas, and getting them personally involved in a way that’s just not possible when the projects are paid for by their tax dollars. But can this actually work? It’s not clear to me that people will be as excited about supporting research as they would be about, say, an e-paper watch.
So what interested me most was what these researchers had come up with in terms of “rewards” for donations, since they lack a tangible product. What is it about what I do, day-to-day, that could be commoditized anyway? The rewards for Bridging Scales in Biology From Atoms to Organisms include a signed thank-you letter, a signed preprint of the resulting scientific paper, a personal lab tour or seminar, acknowledgement in the paper, and patent options. Wow! It had never occurred to me that my autograph on a paper I wrote could be of value. :) And it’s interesting how some of these things (like a lab tour) are things you would expect as a matter of course, if you were to visit, as a researcher yourself. I guess that access is something the general public might be willing to pay for—or at least, that’s Dr. Shakhnovich’s assumption!
My favorite is the reward offered for a $64,000 donation by Dr. Pollack, the chair of the Computer Science department at Brandeis University, for his GOLEM project:
$64000: Endow the lab email and web server.
Half the donation will go to to the research and the other half will endow a permanent fund in the university endowment to provide $3200 per year to maintain and upgrade a server — in perpetuity — upon which my lab will host its website “www.Yourname.Brandeis.edu”. I will personally adopt a new email address thusly: “Pollack@Yourname.brandeis.edu”, and I send and receive a LOT of email!
What are you waiting for? Get out there and support science!