July 1, 2014

Kickstarter – the future of funding geoscience research and education?

Posted by Laura Guertin

Crowdsourcing, the process of seeking assistance for work or funds from a large group of people (typically online), seems to be quite popular these days (note that this blog post will focus specifically on crowdsourcing funds).  From getting funds to film the documentary Bridegroom to translating Moby Dick into Japanese emoji icons (now in the Library of Congress), it is amazing to see the range of ideas and innovations that spark excitement and will trigger a donation.  But I never expected to see an appeal come out for this:

I mean, I wasn’t surprised to hear how U.S. Winter Olympians had to crowdsource funds to get to Sochi.  But how can we get from 1958, when Charles Keeling took his first CO2 measurements atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii, to now struggling to keep this monitoring program running year to year?  We have entered a time of shrinking federal budgets and ever-increasing demands on those limited funds for multiple projects that are all worthy of support.  Scientists are now turning to other sources of funding – including the general public.

The cover of the 2014 Climate Models calendar (learn more at: http://climatemodels.org/)

The cover of the 2014 Climate Models calendar (learn more at: http://climatemodels.org/)

Online platforms such as Kickstarter allow for scientists to share their story online and issue a plea for financial support.  These web-based platforms not only facilitate the connections between creator/innovator and donor, but the interface allows for anyone to support what they would like to see happen.  And an unintended yet interesting side effect of crowdfunding is the education and outreach that can occur with the broader public.  The 2014 Climate Models Calendar is an example of how two photographers were able to raise enough funds via Kickstarter with a “goal to humanize science and increase understanding of current climate research, without being boring,” and to “shatter stereotypes of scientists and show that they’re a diverse group of people doing important research to understand how our planet works.” It worked on me – I supported the project and received two calendars for my donation.

Will current crowdsourcing campaigns for funding projects such as creating astronomy books for small children be successful? It is a challenge to know how and to what people will react.  A group of volunteer scientists were successful in using RocketHub to collect enough funds to reestablish communication with a decades-old NASA ISEE-3 spacecraft.  And I think no one could anticipate the reaction LeVar Burton would receive when he began a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million in one month to to build an interactive web version of the PBS Reading Rainbow series that ended its televised run in 2009.  It only took one day for LeVar Burton to raise $1 million.  By the end of Day 2, Burton had $2 million.  As of the writing of this blog post, over $4 million has been raised with the Kickstarter campaign to Bring Reading Rainbow Back for Every Child, Everywhere.

Where do we go from here?  Crowdfunding sites can be helpful in getting small pilot projects completed, but the lack of regulation raises concerns about consumers falling prey to a swindle.  And for long-term, multi-year projects that will require greater funds and a sustainable future… even Kickstarter is not the solution for what is needed for the Keeling Curve sampling program to continue to provide us with such critical data.  As reported by Cushman (2014), the oxygen research costs about a half million dollars a year, and the carbon dioxide measurements another few hundred thousand dollars.  Interestingly, in response to Ralph Keeling’s online letter asking for assistance, several comments below his letter include a request specifically to set up a Kickstarter campaign.

To end on a lighter note, here’s a video of Jimmy Fallon… I mean, The Doors… singing the theme to “Reading Rainbow.”  It makes me wonder what might happen if we could get Fallon to sing a song about the Keeling Curve…


Additional sources for exploration

Johnson, C. (2013, September 3). Scientists calling on the crowd for funding. The Boston Globe. (Article online)

Keeling, R. (2014, June 25). An Update on Keeling Curve Funding Support. Scripps Institution of Oceanography. (Letter online).

Keeling, R. (2013, December 24). A Letter of Appeal from Ralph Keeling. Scripps Institution of Oceanography. (Letter online).

Sparks, J. (2014, June 9). Measuring Kickstarter’s Successes and Failures. The Wall Street Journal. (Article online)

Tollefson, J. (2013, November 20). Budget crunch hits Keeling’s curves. Nature 503, 321-322. (Article online)