Scientists turn to crowdfunding to help raise funds for research

NEW YORK – In over three decades of studying ferns, Duke University professor Kathleen Pryer has received her share of grant money. But for her newest project, she’s getting help from a retired nurse in Canada and a 17-year-old in Arkansas.

It’s her first foray into the modern-day world of crowdfunding, the practice of using the Internet to raise relatively small amounts of money from a lot of people to finance a project. It’s quite a departure from the normal sources of funding for scientific research, chiefly industry, government and philanthropies.

Outside of science, it’s been successful for projects like developing video games and other consumer products, publishing books and making films and other entertainment programs. A campaign to finance a movie sequel to the cult television show “Veronica Mars” pulled in $2 million in less than a day, eventually gathering more than $5.7 million in 30 days.

But “science has yet to gain Veronica Mars status,” notes Jeanne Garbarino, director of science outreach at Rockefeller University in New York, who has used crowdfunding and informally advised others. Instead, scientific projects tend to be far more modest, generally raising just thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

One researcher, for example, raised about $2,000 to hire a truck and buy camp supplies to recover a triceratops skeleton he’d found in Wyoming. Current campaigns on the website include $5,000 to investigate a parasite in North Carolina bay scallops, $3,560 to study a disease of bats, and $17,400 to tag sharks for migration research.

In one impressive success, more than $150,000 was raised to contact an old research satellite and put it back to work.

Pryer launched a six-week campaign last month to raise $15,000 to decipher the DNA of a fast-growing aquatic fern called Azolla It’s small enough to fit on your thumbnail, but she says learning more about the plant could pay big benefits.

Azolla captures and processes nitrogen from the air with the help of bacteria that live on it, and further study may let scientists engineer that trick into crop plants, reducing the need for fertilizer, she says.