Science & Research

Website offers new path to research funding

U. researchers seek online funding from site that connects academics with crowdsourcing donors

By
Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2014

Brown community members are using crowdsourced funding websites to raise money for personal causes, nonprofit organizations and now scientific research, thanks to experiment.com — the Kickstarter of the academic world.

As an alternative to applying for research grants, some Brown community members have begun using experiment.com to fund their research projects. To carry out their current project entitled “Can sleep patterns change gene function?” a team of researchers led by Mary Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior, and Anne Hart, professor of neuroscience, is trying to raise $9,700 by Dec. 21. They have currently raised more than $1,300.

Carskadon said students may be familiar with the first stage of her study. For years, Brown undergraduate volunteers have participated in Carskadon’s sleep experiment, during which they give blood and DNA samples and then track their sleep patterns throughout the semester. Carskadon is using experiment.com to try to fund the second stage of the project, which aims to examine the effect of sleep on certain genes.

“I have a burning curiosity about whether, over the span of two and a half months, the amount of sleep people get results in changes of the methylation of DNA,” Carskadon said. Methylation of DNA — or the addition of methyl groups — affects how strongly a gene is expressed, with greater methylation often suppressing gene expression.

Securing funding for their next stage of sleep research is critical, Hart said, because the initial findings of their planned genetic analysis could allow the researchers to secure larger grants from the National Institutes of Health further down the road.

“It’s very hard to get funding for preliminary work,” Hart said, calling crowdsourced funding “a new strategy.”

Alexis Jackson GS, who previously crowdsourced research funding, said acquiring money for research is a “catch-22” because researchers must show their preliminary results to grant-giving organizations like the NIH in order to receive funding for further work. But often, researchers need money to conduct preliminary work, she said.

Experiment.com operates in an “all or nothing” format, meaning if a researcher’s monetary goal is not met, everyone who donated will get refunded.

Hart said not many Brown researchers currently use sites like experiment.com. “I think we’re at the leading edge here,” she said. “It is an experiment in and of itself.”

More than 50 projects have been successfully funded through the site, which has partnerships with more than 60 institutions, including Brown, Cornell and Harvard Medical School.

For humanities researchers, federal research grants are particularly limited.

Jackson used experiment.com in March to fund her research project “Of Monks and Men: How medieval construction brought monasteries and lay communities together,” which she used to gather preliminary data for her dissertation. Jackson was able to meet her $2,350 goal.

“I had to look into alternative methods of funding because for art history there aren’t a lot of options,” Jackson said. “I think I was the first person who had done an art history or archeology project through the site.”

Jackson said that raising funds through experiment.com was a different experience from writing research grant proposals. “It’s definitely a different kind of writing. When you’re writing a grant, you know your audience,” she said. “It’s a little bit harder when you’re doing a project online because your audience is different.”

Using a crowdsourced funding platform also means that the researcher bears all responsibility for getting people to donate, Jackson added. “If you send a grant out, you sort of have an expectation of whether it’s going to come back or not,” she said. “If you do a crowdfunding project, the expectation is very much that if you work hard enough, you’ll get it.”

Jackson posted on Twitter and Tumblr during her fundraising campaign and the trip she subsequently took to carry out her research.

Carskadon said that she created a Twitter as a way of urging people to donate. She added that though she is not sure whether her team will reach its fundraising goal, she plans on reaching out to several different groups of potential donors because this project “could be a game-changer. I need it to move as quickly as it can.”