In a video presentation on David Eagleman’s Kickstarter fundraising Web page, the 43-year-old neuroscience professor removes his shirt. There’s a legitimate reason: He’s showing off a prototype of a high-tech vest that he thinks will help us expand human perception beyond the limits of our five senses.
Eagleman is keenly aware that the theatrics will make his pitch stand out. “In the second half of the talk I do the full monty,” he quips. “So just wait for it.”
Eagleman, who runs the perception lab at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, is part of an emerging generation of scientists who are leveraging the world of crowdfunding, social media and TED talks to promote and raise money for research that might otherwise never see the light of day.
This kind of public engagement traditionally has been frowned upon in academia. Some have seen it as a distraction that could lead to decreased productivity. Others, a useless exercise in vanity. A handful of serious scientists — Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene — have catapulted their expertise into fame, but popularity among the masses generally was not seen as the way to get a promotion, money or tenure.
As scientists have faced growing competition for a shrinking pot of government research funds in recent years, however, that attitude is changing.
Today, an increasing number of academic scientists are paying attention to how their hair looks in photos, considering whether they should blog, and figuring out how to translate their life’s work into a brief and attention-grabbing YouTube clip for strangers.
Science historian David Kaiser says the trend is being driven by a flip-flop in how science research is funded in the United States. In the 1960s, the government supported two-thirds of the country’s research and development. These days its share is closer to one-third — with companies, philanthropic organizations and other private sources paying for the rest.
Although the money being raised through crowdfunding sites is only a fraction of the roughly $435 billion spent each year on research and development in the United States, thousands of scientists are building their brands and research coffers on sites such as Experiment.com, Petridish.org, RocketHub.com and others, with the blessing of their universities.
The new money is increasing the momentum for some unconventional or underfunded areas of research — from the genomes of ancient ferns to space mining — by allowing scientists to bypass the bureaucracy of federal agencies that have acted as gatekeepers for science since World War II.
But the growing popularity of crowdfunding also raises questions about oversight and how to ensure sound project designs, rigorous standards for data collection and safety protocols.
Moreover, some of the science projects that have been funded recently fall into regulatory black holes — like tinkering with a plant’s DNA (it’s unclear whether health, agriculture or environmental regulators or any at all would have jurisdiction), building a drone (regulations are still a work in progress) or mining on the moon (treaties governing the ownership and use of celestial bodies have been signed by only a few nations and don’t address this issue).
“Where is that perfect balancing point? It’s not clear to me,” said Kaiser, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I think there is really great stuff that can come up out of crowdfunding, but on the other hand there is some science that can be dangerous if not properly overseen. The question is, how can we add transparency and accountability without squelching creativity?”
The government peer-review committees that oversee grants are conservative by design. Given that their job is to put taxpayers’ money to good use, they are often reluctant to take big risks. The opposite is often true for crowdfunded projects.
Benjamin Longmier, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, has raised $100,000 to build low-cost thrusters capable of sending miniature rockets into deep space. Gail Bishop, a cancer researcher at the University of Iowa, is trying to raise money for a new approach to the disease that hasn’t been tried before — nanoparticles to activate immune cells to fight tumors. She said she has been surprised at how quickly the donations — about $2,000 so far — have come in.
Kathleen Pryer, a Duke University researcher who studies plants important in evolution, has raised $22,000 to study azolla, a plant thought to be important to climate change.
Pryer, who has become known as the professor who named a genus of fern after pop star Lady Gaga, said a venture capitalist called after reading about her online. She said she didn’t know what a venture capitalist was until that day.
“It really opened my eyes to how science can get done when you are constantly hitting the wall trying to do things the traditional way,” Pryer said.
Eagleman’s career is a compelling case study in how a scientist can become a brand.
The brain researcher — who is best known as the guy who runs the experiments that involve throwing people off towers (tethered to harnesses, of course) to try to understand changes in their perception of time — is the author of dozens of peer-reviewed articles in prestigious journals.
Over the years he has received support from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. But even with his track record, Eagleman said he has had trouble getting funding for the more unusual projects he thinks are important.
A researcher’s chances of getting an NSF or NIH grant today are low. In 2013, the application success rate at the NSF was 22 percent. It was 17 percent at the NIH.
“Anyone who has ever had a grant rejected, which is everybody in research, will tell you it’s really frustrating to look at the reviewers’ comments. They will often reject based on inane or insane reasons,” he said. “I don’t know how a scientist can survive now without looking at alternate sources of funding.”
Through friends and other connections, Eagleman pieced together donations from more than a half-dozen private foundations. He wrote a book about the brain, “Incognito,” which in 2011 became a New York Times bestseller and which he promoted on “The Colbert Report.” He has also published opinion pieces in New Scientist, Slate and the Atlantic.
But it wasn’t until last year that Eagleman began experimenting with crowdfunding.
Eagleman and one of his graduate students, Scott Novich, had developed a way to expand the human experience using technology.
The key was a wearable vest with a grid of sensors — little vibrating motors — sewn in. The researchers theorized that if they could code things like numbers or words into different patterns of vibrations in those sensors, the brain could eventually learn to “feel” things like changes in the weather, fluctuations in the stock market or even Twitter streams.
“The world outside has many signals that we’re not picking up on,” Eagleman explained. “We’re now at an inflection point in history where we think about how we can build our own new senses.”
Snakes, for example, can “see” infrared light by detecting heat, and honeybees find nectar in a flower through their ability to see in the ultraviolet range. Dogs can hear higher pitches. Since we have the technology to pick up these signals, can we feed that kind of information to our brains?
They built a prototype and began testing it. Their first application was on the deaf. Using a modified smartphone to capture the sound, they wrote a program to translate the words into signals on the vest — similar to Braille on paper for the blind. The preliminary testing was astounding: Not only did the technology work the way it was supposed to, participants picked up the new tactile “language” with incredible speed. Eagleman theorized that a deaf person using the vest could understand basic conversations within two to three weeks.
After being rejected by government agencies for grants to make the vest lighter, sleeker and more robust, and to expand their tests on the deaf, they turned to Kickstarter.
When crowdfunding sites first appeared about 2009, many scientists pooh-poohed the notion of raising research money through them, theorizing that only those projects with gimmicky mass-market appeal — which they called “panda science” — would attract attention.
But that idea has been debunked.
In the first major study on crowdfunding in the sciences, which was published in December in PLoS One, the study’s authors found that the online audience was willing to fund a wide variety of projects, even those in areas such as statistics or little-known invertebrates — which typically aren’t considered sexy.
What seemed to factor more in the success of a project was whether a researcher was able to develop a sufficient fan base. Being able to connect with a large audience through outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube appeared to correlate with increased levels of funding.
“This is not to say that all projects will have equal appeal, but that persistent engagement can build an audience for many kinds of projects,” Jarrett Byrnes, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and his co-authors wrote.
Today, the success rate for a scientist seeking funding is much higher on crowdfunding sites than at the NIH or the NSF. On Kickstarter — which raises funds from the general public with the typical benefactors giving $25 each — 64 percent of the projects tagged science have been successfully funded since 2012. On Experiment.com, a crowdfunding site dedicated to science, about 38 percent of projects have been funded in the same time frame. The pledge totals range from a few thousand dollars to $1.5 million.
For Eagleman, whose V.E.S.T. (or versatile extra-sensory transducer) project raised almost $50,000 in pledges from 288 backers through Kickstarter, the success of his project has been about raising the money and creating excitement in the general public about his field.
On crowdfunding sites, many scientists skip the T-shirt incentives and instead offer contributors a chance to talk to them directly. A dozen people donated enough to Eagleman’s project to get 10 minutes to an hour with him on Google Hangout. He says it was the best part of the experience.
“It was kind of like having a series of scientific speed dates with people I would have never met otherwise,” he said. “It was such a wonderful experience to meet people who thought the project was cool and had various ideas and pitched in.”
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