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You might help crowdfund an album - but what about some scientific research?

Some scientists have turned to crowdfunding to raise money for their work – with one TCD researcher raising more than €20,000.

Image: Adchariyaphoto via Shutterstock

A NEW WAY of funding science research is emerging which uses people power to buy equipment, materials and costly tests for scientists.

Crowdfunding has become a popular method for the creative world to fund projects, enabling musicians to record albums and directors to film movies. With science budgets being cut across the globe, researchers are now experimenting with this potential source of funding.

Brian Meece, co-founder of crowdfunding site Rockethub, says that science is one of their fastest growing areas. “We’ve seen a significant uptake in science projects across the board over the past year,” he told TheJournal.ie.

He is excited by this development as he says that any member of the public can fund science for the first time in history. “Now we have the ability, as the 99 per cent, to really have an influence on what science gets made and also participate in the process,” he said.

Rockethub, which is based in the US,  is currently hosting the third SciFund Challenge which encompasses 35 science-themed projects. Until mid-December, scientists are looking for contributions from a few dollars to $5,000 (€3,850) or more and are offering a variety of rewards in return.

“We really are the first to try this…”

Dr Ethan Perlstein’s project ran on the site for a number of weeks and met its target of $25,000 one hour before the deadline last Sunday. He turned to crowdfunding when his lab shut down earlier this year.

Collaborating with a lab in Columbia Medical School, he has devised an experiment to discover where amphetamines accumulate inside brain cell. Joking about the well-known television show, he terms this research as “breaking good”.

To date, most science research on crowdfunding platforms have been ecology or conservation themed but Perlstein’s research is lab-based. “In the pure biomedical research area, which is where we are, we really are the first to try this.”

To entice the masses, Perlstein offered people the chance to take part in the scientific process. It cost just $10 to be acknowledged as an honorary lab member and for $75 contributors could be involved in weekly meetings to discuss the project.

“It’s worth pursuing if you can find a way to get people interested in the project…”

A PhD student based in Trinity College Dublin, Joanne Mac Mahon thinks “it is more about people believing in the project rather than the actual rewards”. She raised a record-breaking sum of €24,375 on the Irish site, Fund-It, earlier this year.

Mac Mahon and her group developed a solar disinfection unit for water which is installed in a remote part of Kenya. With this money, they will travel to the village in January to improve their original installation. “We’ll have the system up and running again with a more sustainable water source.”

For cash-strapped scientists, Mac Mahon says crowdfunding is a lot of work but “it’s definitely worth pursuing if you can find a way to get people interested in the project”.

Many researchers remain sceptical about the potential of this type of funding. One of the main reasons cited is the high cost of science equipment which means only scientists who already have access to labs could benefit.

“Costs are definitely a problem but you would look at it as seeding science”, says Akshat Rathi who recently organised a talk on the topic at a science conference called Spot On London. He suggests that “young researchers could go out and do short projects to show grant givers that [their idea] works”.

This is one of the many challenges that need to be overcome before crowdfunding can be used to fund major science projects but Dr Ethan Perlstein thinks scientists should persist. “It’s great if it becomes bigger, but that’s never going to happen until people do the experiment.”

Luckily, that’s something that scientists are particularly good at!

Read: Squeaky bum time! Here’s a secondary school science test >

Read: ‘We aren’t superheroes’: An astronaut tells all >

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Maria Delaney

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