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Uwingu set to 'transform the landscape' of space funding

Space scientists, whose work relies on funding from NASA or the National Science Foundation, know that the money to fund their projects is capricious and uncertain. For them, the land of the shoestring budget is familiar and well-worn territory. It has long been this way because there was no alternative.

Until now.

Enter Uwingu (pronounced "oo-WING-oo," a Swahili word meaning "sky"), an Internet startup that will sell space-themed Internet products geared toward the general public and use the money generated from the sale of these products to fund space research, exploration, and education around the world.

Uwingu LLC has recently launched a campaign to raise startup money through the crowd source funding agent Indiegogo (see Uwingu's funding webpage here). The goal is to reach $75,000 by September 14th, money which will be used to cover the operating expenses involved in the launch of its products. Those involved with the program include such space science notables as Alan Stern, Geoff Marcy, Andrew Chaikin, Pamela Gay, Mark Sykes, David Grinspoon, Emily CoBabe-Ammann, and Teresa Segura.

There is literally nothing quite like it, and yet it is an idea whose time has come, according to AAAS Fellow Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and former head of science at NASA.

Stern, the CEO of Uwingu, spoke with AAASMC about the program, how it will work, and what it hopes to achieve.

AAASMC: Can you provide some background on the Uwingu Fund?
Alan Stern:
  What we are doing is really simple. We are creating a new model for public participation and public funding of space science research and education. We will do that by selling things to a broad section of people—not just space enthusiasts. The proceeds from the sales will first pay our bills—our Internet bills, business operating expenses, and so on—but then the remaining proceeds will go to The Uwingu Fund.

It's a fund that researchers and educators can propose ideas to, just like they would propose to NASA or to the National Science Foundation (NSF). They will submit proposals; we will conduct peer reviews, and then select as many of the finest proposals to fund as we can. 

One thing that distinguishes space exploration and research is that unlike other fields, its funding base is very narrow. For example, in the medical field, researchers have the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and many other opportunities to fund their research through other agencies — there's the Bill and Melinda Gates Fund, the Howard Hughes Fund — and a hundred other ways to fund medical research. If you're in geology, you have numerous federal agencies, as well as energy and mineral exploration firms to find other sources of support.

The problem that space researchers and educators have is that there is essentially nowhere else to go outside NASA and the NSF. This narrow portfolio of choices creates funding instabilities in bad times, and limits what can be funded in good times. One of the goals of Uwingu is to put a little diversity in the portfolio.

We're trying to create a new way for two reasons: one, to provide a backstop for people when there are budget cuts, and two, when times are good, we want to help push the accelerator so people can get more done.

The breakthrough in Uwingu is that instead of just asking people for contributions, like a nonprofit, we are actually going to be making sales of things that a broad cross-section of the public should like, so the revenue base gets out beyond just space enthusiasts—to school kids, educators, hobbyists, and others. The more people that are buying our products, the more revenue we can generate for The Uwingu Fund.

What are those products? Well, that's under wraps for now—we want to build a little suspense!

AAASMC: How did the Uwingu group get started?
It got started just by my having conversations with people in the space world, in the education world, and in the public participation arena. We were talking about the problem the space community has, which is a lack of funding source diversity, which creates funding instabilities. Congress changes its mind, the Administration changes its mind, budget overruns occur, it doesn't matter which, it seems like every year it is something else. We at Uwingu want to make a difference in that, to provide something independent of the essentially federal support model that's been in place since Sputnik.

AAASMC: How was the unusual name chosen?
(Laughs) We sat around in a basement a bunch of Saturdays and talked about how to structure the company, what to call it, how it would work. That's true; we worked in a basement, just like a lot of other Internet startups!

We chose "Uwingu" as our name because of a couple of things. First, we really expect both our sales and the projects we fund to be worldwide, so we didn't want it to sound purely American. We really wanted what we're doing to be impactful in Europe and Asia and other places, so we wanted a name that was more of the world than of the United States. Second, we also wanted the name to have some meaning, and one of the original members of the company suggested Uwingu, a Swahili word that means "sky," and we just liked the sound of it.  

We've chipped in literally thousands of hours over the last two years to write software, html code, and all the other things necessary to put this business in place. And we've put our own money into it as well. But the cash resources needed to launch are beyond what our team can afford on its own, so we thought that because our new concept for creating space funding is 21st century, we'd use another 21st century technique—crowd sourcing—to create the startup funds we need.

In just 12 days, we've already raised over $20,000. It's incredibly energizing with the 10 of us that are doing this just to see the positive comments people make, the press stories and the blogs, and to see people contributing who just want to see it come true.

AAASMC: The efforts you have undertaken to generate new funding from the general public add a completely new dynamic to space study and education. Do you think this is the future of funding for space exploration and research, in that whatever NASA obtains is enhanced by Uwingu's sales from the general public?
  I would characterize it as a future, not the future. I don't think we're ever going to replace NASA in space, and that is not our intent. Think of NASA as a four-lane highway; we're hoping to add a fifth lane. The fifth lane provides more capacity—the ability to get more done. It's not a replacement, it's an adjunct.

AAASMC:  What types of projects or people do you envision would benefit from the money? What types of things are you looking for?
  Wow, that's a really good question, and the answer is really broad, because we're talking everything from planetary science to Earth science to astrophysics, to solar physics; every area of space research, microgravity, life sciences. If it's related to space research or space education, it's legitimately in our domain of interest.

I'll give you another aspect of this that I haven't spoken about a lot, and I think that readers of Science will appreciate this. One of the problems we have in the United States, particularly in the space arena, is that proposals are typically written around projects, so researchers have to write a really sterling story about their idea. It then has to survive peer review where oftentimes five out of every six proposals don't make it because there's just not enough money. As a result, a lot of researchers spend their time writing large numbers of proposals just to stay afloat—and all those proposals, which are very time consuming, are keeping them from doing research.

One thing that we'd like to do at Uwingu is change that equation a little bit. Instead of funding projects—which we're happy to do—we also want to fund people. We want people to send us their curriculum vitae to tell us what they're doing, what they're working on, and to simply ask for support to keep doing it over some period of time—a summer, a year, etc. By funding people who do good work to simply keep doing good work, rather than writing large numbers of proposals, we hope to help them spend more of their time being researchers and educators and less time as proposal writers.

We expect our grants will go from little things to help grade schools or high schools where $1,000 makes a big difference, to someone who needs money for a trip, to a graduate student who needs support for a semester, to a professor who needs support for a summer, up to really significant projects—where a space mission team wants to double their researcher or education budget because they can get a lot more done.

We expect startups to come to us, existing missions to come to us, scientists educators to come to us; and I think we're actually ready to be surprised. I think every quarter it's going to be different as we evolve forward.

Moreover, we don't want to just help people in bad times, defending against budget cuts with Uwingu funds that replace federal funds—we want to also be on the offense, too, creating new possibilities to expand what can be accomplished in space. For example, researchers often say, "I can't propose this to NASA because it's too risky; it will never get through the review panel." One of the things we hope to do at Uwingu is to be able to fund some riskier things—allowing people to try promising things that wouldn't normally get funded.

So you see we're hoping to be something new and different, not just more of the same. We're out to change the world a little.

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