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Crowd funding scientific research

Crowdfunding, or collecting money through small donations made by many people, has been used successfully by artists and charities to raise funds and awareness among the public. Could this model work for scientific research?

The buzz generated by the SciFund Challenge suggests the answer is yes. The SciFund Challenge, run by the online crowdfunding platform RocketHub, offers the public the chance to peruse research ideas and donate money to help make the projects happen. It opened November 1 and runs through December 15.

Donors can choose between 49 projects, including proposals to measure the force of exploding duck penises, investigate how parasites "zombify" their hosts, and fund an expedition to track the origin of a species of all-female crayfish.

Most scientists rely on government funding to pay for their labs, equipment, and other research expenses. Competition for million-dollar grants from agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are increasing, even as their budgets are being slashed. The projects on SciFund are generally smaller than those typically funded by these large agencies. Some projects need a small amount of start-up money to gather preliminary data or acquire new equipment. With funding from SciFund, researchers can strengthen their research portfolio and increase their chances of winning larger government grants in the future.

For instance, Zen Faulkes is the researcher interested in finding the closest relative of an invasive species of all-female crayfish. SciFund donations would help him collect two species of crayfish from the wild and set up a lab colony to study them. Once he completes this baseline research, he'll be able to apply for a National Science Foundation Grant.

Many of the scientists involved in SciFund are just as eager about connecting with the public as they are about getting funded. Some of the projects have a strong conservation focus, so this is an opportunity to spread the word about a particular ecosystem in plight or species in need of protection. For instance, Shermin de Silva wants to be able to hire and train local people to assist with the first-ever study of Asian elephants in the wild.

Donations of any amount are appreciated and most donations come with "rewards.\" Some of the rewards include the right to name a crayfish in the lab colony ($15 to "Doctor Zen and the Amazon Crayfish") and the opportunity to arrange a live webinar with the researchers to ask questions about their work ($1,000 to "Helping Elephants and People Coexist").

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