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Donations for researchers

by DIETRICH VON RICHTHOFEN

Expeditions on spare change? Young scientists are collecting donations for their projects.

donations_for_researchers© binagel - iStockphoto.com
Alison Styring had tried pretty much everything to fund her research. »In the past four years I applied for numerous grants and wrote several funding proposals - all unsuccessful«, says the 39-year-old ornithologist, who has a teaching post at Evergreen State University in the US state of Washington. Getting funding in her research area is always difficult, she says; the economic crisis has made the situation even worse.

Styring's aim is to research the chirping, calling and warbling in the jungles of Borneo. »We want to record bird voices in those areas of the jungle that are still pristine; in future we intend these soundscapes to serve as a reference for biodiversity research and for species surveys«, she explains. In addition to travel expenses and the one-month stay, she will also have to pay for the recording equipment and a number of staff, for which she needs at least $20,000, she says. How to raise such a sum? Finding traditional sources of funding unforthcoming, in mid-August Styring appealed to the whole world. She described her project »Mapping a Bornean Soundscape« on the web platform Kickstarter, posted photographs and videos - and asked the Internet community to support her project. The smallest possible contribution is one dollar; the campaign runs until mid-October. Only if she reaches the $20,000 target by that time will Kickstarter take the pledged money from the donors and pass it on to the ornithologist so that she can embark on her trip.

Crowd funding is the name of this concept: many donors contribute small sums each - micro financing by the masses. The idea has been booming for several years in the creative and investment fields. Hundreds of thousands of projects have meanwhile been funded through countless platforms like Kickstarter. Young bands request money to record albums, filmmakers seek budgets for movies or video art, entrepreneurs for their start-ups. Increasingly, scientists like Alison Styring are turning to Internet users to raise funds for their research projects by small amounts.

The need to save money in these times of high debt is not leaving state research funding unscathed. A number of platforms that present potential donors exclusively with academic ideas have already been created in the Anglo-American region: FundScience from the USA for example or the MyProjects platform set up by Cancer Research UK. In view of this development, renowned academic journal Nature Neuroscience is already speaking of citizen science - a new form of science in which citizens participate directly and which could increase enthusiasm and promote scientific literacy, wrote the publishers in an editorial, leading to »stronger backing for federal support of scientific research«. What a superstructure! Digital donation boxes are supposed to help achieve all that?

These approaches should absolutely be taken seriously, says Joachim Hemer of the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research in Karlsruhe. He has carried out a research project on crowd funding in the innovation sector - and also examined its use in academia. His conclusion: the enthusiasm with which the concept is pursued in other countries should be reason enough to also consider it in Germany. Nothing comparable currently exists in this country. Hemer believes this is all the more reason for state institutions and science institutes such as the Stifterverband or the German Research Association to discuss it. The innovation expert does not see crowd funding as a future giant of research funding (which after all amounts to many billions of euros annually); rather, crowd funding could close a gap, especially for pilot projects by young researchers. »Crowd funding could at least finance preliminary and feasibility studies that might serve as preparation for larger-scale projects«, says Hemer, who also considers crowd funding a gauge of public interest: »Donors want to weigh in on the prioritisation of research topics.«

In this way, this method of funding could contribute to a »democratisation«, he explains. Doing justice to both the charming idea of crowd funding and the transparency and quality standards expected in academia is however something of a challenge. Andrea Gaggioli has been struggling with this issue for three years. In an article published in academic journal Science in September 2008, the psychologist from the Catholic University of Milan described crowd funding as an opportunity particularly for young researchers with new, risky ideas. Since 2009, the Italian has been working on the Open Genius project. »Technically, the platform could have gone live a long time ago, but there are still lots of questions I first have to answer«, says Gaggioli. He lists them: How do you ensure the credibility and quality of web-based funding proposals? How do you ensure that ideas are not simply copied from other researchers? How can researchers account for the use of the funds to their donors? How do you prevent fraud?

The innovator believes that »the existing academic crowd funding platforms are making it too easy for themselves.« After all, they provide no functionality beyond the digital version of any run-of-the-mill request for charity. Even in crowd funding, says Gaggioli, the reputation and credibility of academia must always be carefully maintained. Anyone who wishes to publish a request for funding on Open Genius will therefore first have to prove his or her connection to a recognised research institution. All project descriptions will be subject to peer review beforehand. »The review will be published alongside the project description so that each potential donor can form as objective an opinion as possible«, says Gaggioli. The American Open Source Science Project (OSSP), which is expected to publish its first funding proposals in mid-September to coincide with the start of the winter semester, is pursuing a very similar concept.

Ornithologist Alison Styring set out to collect donations with no peer review or seal of approval. The most important question for her was how she could generate enthusiasm for the project - and what to offer in return. She came up with an entirely ornithological way to let donors participate in the success of a possible expedition. She promises them audio files featuring the sounds of the jungle: ten minutes for a donation of $10; donations over $100 will even be rewarded with an entire CD full of Bornean sounds, plus a personal thank-you letter. The most generous donors will additionally be named on the project's website. Whether lots of dollars or just a single one - the researcher hopes that all donors will have the feeling that they helped make an important project possible. Nature in Indonesia is coming under increasing human pressure, she explains; she believes she must act quickly before the last pristine areas vanish forever: »We want to record and map the sounds of this jungle while we still can.« And she's not too shy to rattle the donation box to achieve it.

From DIE ZEIT :: 01.09.2011