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Extraordinary Popular Enthusiasms and Funding from Crowds

• March 08, 2013 • 9:43 AM

On the Good.is website right now is an appeal from Tyler Alterman, a matriculating neuroscientist and self-described scientific detective, seeking cash support for The Think Tank, his lab-on-wheels. This rolling experimentation station will travel the New York metro area to both teach the masses about cognition and to draw them into studies about brain function.

Here’s “the plan,” as taken from Alterman’s appeal page at IndieGoGo:

Think Tank model

A model, taken from the IndieGoGo appeal page, of what The Think Tank would look like. It was originally going to be dubbed the “Brainmobile.”

TTT will be an art+science team-up between artists and scientists from Tyler Alterman’s lab. Together we will transform a recycled box truck into a fully functioning lab with a glowing pink brain on top. The result: a literal and metaphorical vehicle for empowering the public with cognitive science.

Upon hitting the streets, TTT will:

– Drive to elementary and high schools where mobile researchers will teach students about the science of the mind.

– Invite citizens aboard to participate in studies and teach them how cognitive science can improve their lives.

– Collaborate with world-renowned psychologists and neuroscientists to deliver sidewalk talks, taking the public on their explorations into human thought and behavior.

In his plea at Good, Alterman likens the project to the (better-funded) Moveable Museums of the American Museum of Natural History, arguing that The Think Tank “will spread literacy not only for cognitive science, but the scientific process in general.”

I bring up the funding angle because if you’re familiar with IndieGoGo, you know it’s a way to “crowdsource” the financial backing needed to bring your idea to fruition. As our Melanie Cevcenko tolds us a few years back:

Asking for public donations to get a project off the ground is not a new idea. Even Beethoven pre-sold concert tickets to raise funds for his new compositions. But these days, “crowdfunding” — going to the Internet to ask the public for small financial contributions to support projects — has infiltrated the arts scene and is extending to various causes and charities on a global level.

One of those various causes is now research; crowdfunding has proven a promising way to bring citizens back into science, if not directly, then as motivated stakeholders. Alterman, for example, had hoped to raise $10,900 by March 13, and at last look he’d beaten that with $11,434 raised. (And outside of science, some pretty amazing sums are sought, like a million bucks for a video game.)

A few weeks ago, the world’s most kinetic tropical ecologist, Jai Ranganathan, outlined some of the basics of crowdfunding for scientists during a session at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. If you’ve been around this site for a while you may recall Jai as the voice behind our “Curiouser and Curiouser” podcast series. Since we folded that tent, he went on to help found (with Jarrett Byrnes) the SciFundChallenge, one of the earliest crowdfunding efforts focused on science.

At AAAS, Jai let a big cat out of the bag pretty quickly—at least for science, crowdfunding isn’t really about funding at all.

“’Crowd’ is the first word in crowdfunding,” he explained, “and so you’re reaching out with science for its own sake.” In short, engaging with the public is, in his eyes, just as important if not more so than getting money for some nifty project. (Although, Jai notes, last year Kickstarter campaigns sent more to arts than did the NEA …)

In practice, you have to create the crowd well before you go out cup in hand. Using data SciFund has drawn from 159 projects over three rounds of funding, Jai said that a scientist blogger who posts once a month, for example, on average will have 53 Twitter followers, and each Twitter follower equates to one SciFund project view, and each 110 SciFund view leads to one contributor. (But in that order—there’s no saying I wish for a thousand contributors and that will lead to massive traffic on my nascent blog.) For Facebook, 50 friends equate to one contributor. And the average donor equates to a $55 donation.

And nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. After a project has reached its funding goal, every 20 subsequent pageviews it gets bring in a new contributor.

The model is still a work in progress. The NSF (of NIH) are not the NEA — crowdfunding is not going to be the only, or even the dominant, funding mechanism for science. But it’s a start, both for worthy projects—not all of which, traditionalists will be relieved to know, feature charismatic critters or psychological Mystery Machines—and for re-establishing the proper linkages of science and the people. As one biologist asked Jai, “Won’t people feel they have an ownership issue?” To which he answered, “Let’s flip that around—isn’t that awesome!”

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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