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On crowd-sourcing scientific research funding

Bill Hanage 23 May 2012

Your name in lights: fund the science of your choice

Can you persuade netizens to put money behind a scientific project, with the reward of knowing they have contributed to pushing back the frontiers of knowledge?

So the other day I invested in a Pebble.

No, I’ve not lost what little remains of my mind. I’ve not thrown any money at a shiny ovoid of rock polished silky smooth by eons upon eons of storm tossed seas (although with every word I type that is sounding more appealing). The Pebble is a watch, with a screen based on the Kindle’s electronic paper. It can communicate with your phone via Bluetooth and display incoming calls or emails. And in the other direction you can use it to control the volume of your music, skip tracks and the like. And you can download apps for it, or change the clock face displayed by the electronic paper screen.

But before you go looking for it in Radio Shack, you won’t find it. Not yet. The Pebble only exists in prototype form. All those cool features are promised for the final product, anticipated in the fall of this year. But if you are interested, you can invest and be first in line for the hippest (or most geeky) wristwear this autumn. The developers have so far inspired folks to the tune of more than $10 million, invested over the web via KickStarter.

Could this work as a way of funding science? Can you persuade netizens to put money behind a scientific project, with the reward of knowing they have contributed to pushing back the frontiers of knowledge? Such charitable funding is the sort of thing that worthy causes have been doing for years. The difference is that in the age of the internet, researchers are no longer kept at a distance from their funders. Donors can interact with the project. Instead of handing over their bank details to some hideous chugger, and then leaving it to the charity to disburse the cash, people can fund the exact experiments they like, and for some projects, they can see their name written in lights – or at least in glowing bacteria.

Glowing bacteria? Well, this is part of the incentive my wonderful collaborator Siouxsie Wiles has put together to help persuade people to fund our project through the SciFund Challenge on RocketHub. (The image above, taken by Siouxie, shows bioluminescent bacteria spelling out the name 'Eve' - which happens to be the name of both of our daughters.) We are attempting to track how infectious agents adapt to a new environment, using state-of-the-art imaging and genomics. Siouxsie does the hard graft in her lab, and then sends the DNA to me for the sequencing bit. The costs of genome sequencing are now such that a contribution from one person really can make a difference. And one of the exciting things about this way of doing science is that even if the only thing people reading this do is update Facebook with a link, or tweets it, they are helping to spread the word about the research, and maybe find people who want to get more involved. Thank you. The more genomes we can get, the more power we will have when it comes to the sharp end of the analysis.

It’s a cool project, and you can read more about it here. Whatever the results, we should learn something important, and that will make it a lot easier to apply for more money from conventional funding sources. Serious money. Given the appalling numbers of people who suffer and die from infectious diseases, understanding how they adapt is an essential enterprise.

Sure, right now it’s a bit boutique. In the sense that it is small and focused, and yes, speculative. But speculating is what science is about. Not groundless speculation, but the sort that comes from a combination of curiosity and long immersion in a subject. It’s one of the great things about science; speculation can and does lead to rewards as curiosity is fulfilled and suddenly, we know something nobody has ever known before. And now everyone can be a part of it.