Scientists Seek Donations on Innovative Micro-Philanthropy Site
A creative new Web site connects funding proposals by scientists with contributors who want to support the work out of the goodness of their hearts. An
e-mailed press release describes the nonprofit, whose Web site is SciFlies.org:
[Co-founder David] Fries, who is on the faculty of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science and has spun out several successful
entrepreneurial companies from technologies developed there, knows all too well how a lack of steady funding can interrupt the progress of scientific
discovery. To address this need, he partnered with veteran nonprofit and political fundraiser Larry Biddle and regional technology industry advocate
and communications strategist Michelle Bauer to develop the model for SciFlies.
was a creative fundraiser on Howard Dean's campaign in 2004, which took in millions of dollars in donations of $50 or less. "If people really care
about something, ... this gives people a way to connect. It democratizes science for the mass public," says Bauer, who is managing a team of writers to
help edit research proposals "so that they tell a story people can understand." Among the early applicants is Karl Wegmann at North Carolina State
University in Raleigh. He read about the idea in a geology magazine last year and thought he would submit a proposal to study how centuries-old soil
sediments in streams may affect modern-day water quality. "What the heck—I'll give it a try," the geologist thought.
Wegmann is currently funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and state funding organizations. "I felt the general public could understand
... that there might be more connection than if I said I'm doing research on topography in Mongolia," he added. His $10,000 proposal, which will be
funded by volunteer contributions, seeks funding for automatic water samplers that would collect water after rainfall. "I'm guardedly optimistic, but
at the same time I'm not sure how people will find out about this."
SciFlies plans to vet the research by assembling a team of university scientists who serve as reviewers for NSF, Bauer says. (Wegmann says that his
proposal was vetted by little more than a few e-mails with a staffer on the site.) The site is in beta mode now, but seven research proposals are
posted for perusal. The organizers hope to fund everything from physics to medical science with the site and the largess of the public. Projects
range in size from $5000 to $100,000; the money flows from donors to researchers only after the total amount of donations for the project can fully
fund the scientists.
One aspect of the site that makes it a bit more intimate than most research funding applications: It asks scientists to post pictures of themselves as
well as fill in a form that includes "Passion/Philosophy" and "What's on your nightstand?" Wegmann wrote: "Sharing the wonders of Earth Science
Research with students and the public." And "Remember the Lorax!" for his philosophy. He listed No Man's River by Farley Mowat as his nightstand
book. "I didn't really know what to put down there," he says.