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TEDx: “Alternative Futures of Science Funding”

Ben "Unidan" Eisenkop explores alternative ways of supporting research

For many, scientific research conjures foreign images of lab coats and pipettes. Promising the audience that “scientists are people, too,” Ben Eisenkop spoke about how crowdsourcing research projects can get anyone perusing the Internet involved — and maybe even inspire new scientists to get started.

Kendall Loh/Photo Editor

Eisenkop discussed websites like Experiment.com, which take the same approach as the website Kickstarter to fund science research projects. The sites enable donors to contribute to the projects that they think have the best ideas.

Having used both Kickstarter and Experiment.com to fund projects he worked on, Eisenkop explained the difference between the sites in terms of contributors’ expectations.

“With Kickstarter, you’re promised a gift, so you’re getting something back in return,” Eisenkop said. “Science ‘Kickstarter’ is different because you’re promising data, and no one is like, ‘Yes! An excel spreadsheet!’ No one is super jazzed about that.”

Eisenkop, who achieved fame on Reddit under the username Unidan, used Experiment.com to fund a project studying the patterns and effects of American crow movement. The project was successfully funded on March 12, and Eisenkop said support came from a number of online communities — centered on birding, ornithological studies or broad scientific areas — he discovered through Reddit.

“I was able to interact with in a real way and get their input on things,” Eisenkop said.

Several thousand dollars of that funding came through cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Dogecoin, which Eisenkop explained to an amused audience.

“You have an Internet meme that just got so hilariously popular that it eventually became a cryptocurrency in and of itself, and all it is is silly dog photos,” Eisenkop said. “And it was bizarre, because we were like, ‘we’re getting funded by dog pictures right now.’”

Eisenkop admitted that crows aren’t the most beloved animals — “they’re a gigantic, black, ominous bird that eats corpses” — but he said using Experiment.com and Reddit reached a whole new community that took a real interest in his project.

“They’d seen BBC documentaries about animals they’ll never see, but they had never questioned the animals in their backyard,” Eisenkop said.

He said he hopes to see more projects like this reach people to get them thinking about things that are important to them.

“If you can do that, if you can reach these people and try to get them invested in you, then that builds the future of funding,” Eisenkop said. “And you can get people to repeat this again and again, and then try to come back, and then become scientists themselves — even if it’s only a small proportion of those people.”

Eisenkop said he hopes to see more people inspired to get into science, particularly within their own backyards.

“Being able to get people to interact with the world around them and realize that there’s a lot out there, and that they can build questions and answer them — even if they can’t get answers from other people — they can do these small projects and get answers themselves. Its’ some thing that I’d rally like to see for the future of science,” Eisenkop said.

Q&A

Pipe Dream: Since it is based on public interest, how can crowdsourcing affect what research is getting funded?

Ben Eisenkop: I don’t want to say that everything should be crowd sourced. I don’t think that’s true. You have some things, like if you want to do Alzheimer’s research, you might say, ‘I’m going to do a Kickstarter and raise $50,000. And you may do that, and that’s great. [But] that may be one day in an Alzheimer’s’ research lab. And you need those million dollar grants coming from the government and tax money to keep that kind of thing going. So those kind of projects, I think, don’t work really well. The kind of stuff I do want to talk about is breaking up smaller projects that are more feasible — that may only say, ‘OK, I need gas money to go from here to here’ or ‘I need to refurbish some equipment that I have.’ So those little projects, that people have a vested interest in, are something that I’m interested in. And that’s something that I think crowd funding is really good for. So if there’s niche project that a lot of people want to get involved with, and you have a close tie with a community that’s involved in that, that’s something that I think works really well for Kickstarters or Kickstarter-type things.

PD: Do you think it’s a negative aspect of crowd funding that if there’s not enough public interest there, a project won’t get as much money?

BE: Yeah. And that’s where I’m saying a lot of the government grant stuff needs to still be there. So you can have people that have really uninteresting, un-sexy projects that are like, ‘I want to study mud bacteria.’ No one is like, ‘Woo! Mud bacteria!’ — you know, it’s going to be harder to get that funding. But having a government grant that can assess that on a separate note, that’s interesting.

PD: I know sometimes projects will be funded by both federal money and crowdsourcing. Do you think that already having crowd funding could help you maybe to get some of those grants, or vice-versa?

BE: Doing some public talks doesn’t necessarily help you get the grants, because you have a peer review board that will assess your grand kind of independent of everything. And that’s purely based on merit of your grant. But there are parts, if you do get a grant — for NSF (National Science Foundation), for example, there’s “Broader Impacts,” which is a new thing that they’ve brought in so you now need to go out and advance things outside of just your research. So you need to go help high schools, or integrate it for low-income families, or get minority students involved. So they try to get you out there as well, so building this rapport between communities is already really helpful because if you have that base, then your “Broad Impacts” is kind of already taken care of, you don’t need to think to much more ahead on that.

PD: Do you think that during those talks and outreach initiatives, one would pitch their project differently to the public than to something like NSF?

BE: We definitely pare things down. So for the crow project that I did, I had an NSF grant that went in, and that was extremely technical, meant for a scientific audience. For Experiment.com, it was pared down quite a bit. Parts of the project were omitted just to make it more tackle-able. That, I think, is a big thing too — you want to break your huge project into little, bite-sized pieces. And then also making it understandable by the public, too.

PD: Do you think that these crowdsourced projects can give science, which tends to be more institutionalized, a kind of grassroots feel?

BE: Yeah. The thing that you need to do, I think, to be successful is you need to identify the communities that would be interested in your project. [For the Experiment.com project] we went to birding communities, these are people that are outside, looking at birds, that are interested in this stuff already but don’t necessarily have the means to look and review those topics. So what was cool was we would talk to them and tell them what we were doing, and they have a vested interest because they have a connection with that personally. And because of that, they’re more likely to then share that information … and it becomes organic that way.

PD: Are there any other options out there beyond federal grants and crowdsourcing?

BE: There are smaller grants you can apply for, but it’s the same kind of deal. Some of them [have] really, really low approval ratings in funding rates. And it’s a little disheartening. And in some ways it’s good because it filters out bad proposals — and that’s one the downsides of crowd funding, if someone’s just really charismatic, they can put forth a bad plan and get it done. But at the same time, there’s academics that are still out there that are going to evaluate those plans, so I think the next step is trying to find a way to bring some peer review, or at least get this more popular where there will be a site that maybe has a panel of experts that can go through and kind of look at the validity. So instead of just saying ‘OK the U.S. government is the only thing I can crowdsource, we’ll bring this out and make smaller, decentralized crowdsourcing, but it will still have a peer review process.’

PD: Could it be potentially good or bad to have the public have so much influence in funding these projects?

BE: Could be good. Certainly, like I said, it could be bad where you could fund a bad project. But what’s good about it is you’re not using taxpayer money; it’s entirely individual-based.

PD: You mentioned you think crowdsourcing sites are better used for smaller niche projects. Should there be any type of regulation on that?

BE: Right now it’s hard to get regulation just because you’re not going to get all these experts to come out and go to all these individual sites. Though it’s kind of interesting to see where the community is shifting itself, and I think we’re going to have to wait a couple years to see what the hell happened.

PD: Last question. This year’s TEDx topic is ‘Stray the Course.’ How does that tie in with your talk?

BE: I think a lot of it is trying to buck the system of ‘the only way that you can fund science is through science-approved channels.’ And that may very well be true for very good science. And I think that doing this alternate way, in conjunction with the other way, helps you reach a lot of people that may not have that channel available to them. And even if their data isn’t perfect, it can still inform us. So there’s plenty of citizen science that goes on that wouldn’t be perfect data, but because so many people are collaborating on it, you still get a great idea of what’s going on … Even if those aren’t the things that get published, [they] can help us concentrate and focus in on areas that we do want to study.