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Crowdfunding science: the search for public interest in research

posted Jul 11, 2014, 4:29 PM by Siamak Ebarhimi

Applying for grant money to conduct scientific research is painstaking, challenging and often disappointing. With limited funds and a difficult economy, the main sources of funding-industry, government and philanthropy-can't dole out bucks for every interesting idea that comes their way.crowdfunding marketing

But the possibilities of science are as vast as our universe and there are constantly different phenomena cropping up around us that require further study, experimentation and application. And it's in our nature as human beings to always explore our curiosities. So, some researchers are turning to alternative sources to help replenish the coffers of science.Indiegogo marketing

A professor at Duke University, Kathleen Pryer, is one such researcher. Frustrated by the rejection her grant proposal received from the National Science Foundation (NSF), she is turning to the public. Her research project focuses on an aquatic fern called Azolla.
The plant may seem quaint and tiny, but it's actually a 'superorganism'. The fern carries symbiotic bacteria and together the organisms capture nitrogen from the air. Farmers in Asia grow the little fern with rice, using the plant's natural nitrogen fertilizer-producing abilities. 

"Wouldn't it be great to understand this symbiotic relationship better? To be able to decipher the biological 'conversation' between the host and the microbe?" Pryer said. 

Yet the agricultural capability is not all that has Pyer excited. The little fern and its symbiotic bacteria also capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the plant grows at a rapid rate.crowdfunding advertising

Its potential as a small but scrappy weapon against global warming inspired Pryer to sequence its DNA and understand its secrets. The NSF was not so inspired; Pryer's grant proposal was "turned down flat".

Pryer and her team of researchers then began a crowdfunding project on to raise $15,000 to collect Azolla and put its genome and its symbiotic bacteria DNA through Illumina sequencing technology.CrowdFunding marketing

Unfortunately, the campaign only received a third of its funding goal by late June. With little time left, Dr. Pryer was unsure her goal would be met. Then, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), a non-profit institute in China that develops scientific support for DNA research, contacted Pryer and offered funding to retrieve Azolla specimens. With the institute's help, Pryer's campaign is now at $20,449.kickstarter project

Pryer is refocusing her campaign to achieve a goal of $22,000 by July 11 for the analysis of the data from BGI. Her team received shipments of Azolla on Wednesday, July 9. It seems, with a huge stroke of luck, that Pryer's efforts paid off.CrowdFunding advertizing

Another research project funded online by the public is also seeing success. Ken Buesseler, an ocean scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, says that radioactive waste from Fukushima will arrive off the West Coast. While he doesn't believe the waste will be a health hazard, he wants to ensure its safety and mitigate all cause for alarm in the public.Kickstarter Marketing

He's doing this by taking the issue straight to the public. He set up a website to get volunteers and money for sampling the water off the coast-and received over $55,000. So far he's found no evidence of radiation, but lots of proof that people care.kickstarter marketing

While other crowdfunding projects often make the news for raising astounding amounts of money-namely entertainment projects-there seems to be a platform, albeit small, for public support of science online. Whether it will take stronger hold or not, only time can tell. Meanwhile, more science crowdfunding campaigns result in more public engagement, Edward Derrick of the American Association for the Advancement of Science says. And that's never a bad thing.indiegogo marketing

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By David Khorram