SARAH WILD: Researchers pick crowdfunding route as funds from state dry up
From tracing the history of human disease to early ancestors to monitoring the country’s groundwater, scientists are asking citizens to fund their work
It started with technology innovators looking online to access the deep pockets of venture capitalists. Now scientists are following suit. SA’s researchers, feeling the pinch of fiscal austerity, are turning to the internet to fund their research.
Whether it is for tracing the history of human disease back to the early ancestors, monitoring the country’s groundwater, or establishing a new penguin colony, researchers are asking citizens to fund their science.
"Why not let people share their stories for the research on the internet, and let the crowd decide?" asks Denny Luan, co-founder of www.experiment.com, a US crowdfunding site specifically for science.
"At the same time, [we can] work to connect the public with real, raw, unfiltered science."
When Luan was a young scientist, "there were no clear options for us to find funding to conduct research that we knew was important and worthwhile, and that the traditional funding system would deem ‘too risky’ or ‘not valuable’", he says.
His site has funded several South African projects: Birdlife Africa’s researchers raised $5,400 to monitor predators at possible sites for a new African penguin colony. In 2016, 59 people funded University of Pretoria researcher Dr Gayle Petersen to analyse the behaviour and genetics of rhino to compile a "genetic metapopulation management plan".
Dr Riaan Rifkin of the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics at the University of Pretoria has a research project on www.experiment.com aimed at creating a timeline of human disease spanning the past 100,000 years from pathogens in Southern Africa’s archaeological sites.
SA is a treasure trove of archaeological sites. Rifkin and his colleagues aim to show most major human pathogens originated in the Pleistocene period, from about 2.5-million to 11,700 years ago. "Given the novelty of the research, it is difficult to obtain funding from traditional sources," he says. While he has an initial tranche of data, he has not yet published it in peer-reviewed journals.
To get funding, "one needs at least one or two peer-reviewed publications to demonstrate the feasibility of the project and provide confirmation that it is a viable longer-term research avenue", Rifkin says.
He and his team have a goal of raising $2,900, with less than a month to achieve it.
"The crowdsource funding would be very useful in allowing us to sample and analyse DNA derived from other archaeological contexts," Rifkin says. "There are sites in the Lebombo Mountains, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, the Richtersveld, Fynbos Biome and the Bushveld.
"This is required if we want to draw conclusions concerning human health from a much broader background."
Dr Jodie Miller of Stellenbosch University’s department of earth sciences believes that crowdsourcing could be an important avenue of funding for SA’s researchers and students.
"I see it as a way of alleviating the funding shortfalls currently seen within the National Research Foundation [NRF] and the Water Research Commission," she says.
The NRF, which reports to the Department of Science and Technology, is the major funder of university-based research in SA. The department’s budget has stagnated at about R7.4bn a year, with no additional allocations to compensate for inflation or the weak rand. This means that research budgets are tight.
Miller is now overseeing a crowdfunding groundwater project through www.thundafund.com. "With this project, we want to develop a model to map the distribution of renewable groundwater in SA. With this information, we can avoid [over] exploitation and rather use this important resource in a sustainable manner," she says.
MSc student Jared van Rooyen, with two honours students, is driving the project, Know Your Water.
Usually this sort of research would be funded by the Water Research Commission or the NRF, but constrained budgets and the timing of postgraduate research projects mean that funding from these sources is not always available.
The commission raises its funds through a water levy. As people buy less water during a drought, less funding is available for research, Miller says.
Students also often decide to undertake their postgraduate research late in the year, leaving little time to access funding.
Know Your Water needs R200,000, and on the site, there is a full breakdown of their methodology, objectives and what the money would be spent on. Although it is far from its goal, Miller says researchers are used to adapting projects to fit the funding they receive.
"We think we will definitely reach the tipping point [to make it viable], which is about R60,000. As with all science, you set up a budget to do what you would like to do, and then have to modify it to do what you can afford to do," Miller says.
The transparency appeals to funders, she says.
"We hear that many people would like to donate to universities, but they want to know exactly what they are funding," Miller says.
"Crowdfunding would be a way of achieving this by providing a vehicle for researchers and students while donors know exactly what they are funding."
She believes universities should set up crowdfunding sites so that citizens can support research initiatives.
Luan from experiment.com’s says all kinds of people support their science projects. "Scientists, nonscientists, artists, designers, engineers, old people, and children — they come from all over the world," he says.
"There’s a community of 2,700+ people who’ve funded more than one project. One person has even funded 804 projects, which is mind-boggling."
He notes the importance of science in developing countries, and the importance of local researchers doing the work.
"Developing countries have important scientific questions and problems that are unique," he says, citing the example of research in Tanzania into whether mosquitoes were attracted to stinky rather than clean feet. This research, which resulted in foot-smell traps to attract and kill mosquitoes, won an Ignoble Award in 2006.
"That’s a perfect example of a uniquely local question and approach. If someone in the US had tried, they would have ended up with a different outcome and approach," Luan says.