Feature Interview: SciFund Challenge Part 1

"If there is anything that makes Scifund different it is that we all rise together" Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of the SciFund Challenge, kindly agreed to be interviewed for ORGzine and spoke about how their crowd-sourcing platform works and what its real purpose is.

Image: CC-BY 2.0 Amy Loves Yah

"The legislature is considering a ban on climate change, to make sea level rise illegal, and this is the result of a science- illiterate world"

Dr. Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of the SciFund Challenge, explained how his 'crowd-sourcing for science' platform is filling a real need, not just for science funding, but for the general public to become involved in science. He answered questions to ORGzine Editor, Ruth Coustick, on peer-reviewing, how scientists can attract a crowd, and where this platform differentiates from all others. His answers were enthusiastic and in-depth, keen to emphasise that SciFund Challenge has a lot to offer and showing a real sense of pride in the platform.


Ruth: Could you start by telling us what the SciFund Challenge is?

 Jai: So what the SciFund challenge is an answer to two problems. If you look at science today there are two giant problems. The first, which I think is the most important, is that, particularly in the United States (and in culture world-wide), the gap between science and society has never been more due disastrous consequences. If you look at the lack of movement on climate change - in the US state of North Carolina the legislature is considering a bill to ban on climate change, to make it illegal, to make sea level rise illegal - and this is the consequences of a science illiterate society and a science illiterate world in many ways.

 There has been much written about it, why we are in this situation. One of the reasons why is because scientists don’t talk to general audiences, they just don't. So that's the first problem.

The second problem is that funding for science across the developed world is getting harder and harder to come by. Maybe crowd funding for science is the answer to both because for the first time

it is about cash, but you can only get that cash by connecting to the crowd; crowd funding - the crowd comes first. So maybe this is the way for the first time to change the structure of academia so that there is a reason to connect with the general public.

And again it's not a bribe, it not 'oh you talk to these people and get $50 out of it'. It's not that at all. It's a way to change the incentives so that we to close this gap and raise micro-science along the way. That’s what SciFund is about.

Ruth: If scientists have to get a crowd, how do they do it? Unlike media-based crowd-sourcing platforms, most scientists don't have a big fan following to start with, not generally.

Jai: Well you are exactly right because the amount of money you raise is directly dependant on the crowd you have. There are particular reasons why scientists don't engage. The first is a lack of money. The second reason is a lack of understanding. How you do this? How do you create a good three minute video? How do you put out your science in an interesting and engaging way? Cutting out the jargon, but not losing the heart of the science -how do you do that?

So once you have figured out how to do that -how do you find an audience to reach out to? That’s what scientists don't know for the most part how to do. So that's what SciFund Challenge is really about. What it is really is is a crash course in modern communications for scientists packaged as a money-making scheme. But the money really isn’t the point; the point is really this communications course as to how you do this. As it turns out all the things you need to do for a successful crowd funding campaign - have a good video, have engaging text, good photographs, talk to people on Twitter -you have to do all of those things anyway if you are trying to reach people with your science message. So that's what SciFund is trying to solve.

Ruth: What has the reaction been like from other scientists to the project?

Jai: It has been surprising. We have been really shocked by how positive people have been. You know science is a very conservative institution, not conservative in a political sense, but conservative in a 'not necessarily moving quickly with societal trends' sense. So when we started this about a year ago myself and my partner Jarrett Byrnes, he and I are both ecologists, we were not sure if we would be able to get very far or if the wave of opinion of scientists would shut us down by saying 'oh you can't do this', 'this is just wrong', 'it is against what science is about', 'blah. blah blah'. In effect that hasn’t happened. The response has been hugely positive. We have run now 2 waves and about 130 scientists through and there have been many many more scientists who have said 'We can't do this now, but we are definitely paying attention'. It has been really amazing how open people have been.

Ruth: So what criteria do you use to decide what projects will go up on the site?

Jai: This is a run in a group fashion. We run these in rounds. The reason for this is so people have other people to help with their projects, because SciFund is about helping each other and we need a big group for this to work. Our role is to make sure that the science is legitimate, but beyond that everyone gets in.

I think there is a big difference between our crowd funding and Kickstarter, for example, and crowd funding for music or film or that kind of thing because you know with a band you either like the band or you don't. The danger with something technical like science is that you can have something with a flashy video, but the science behind it is either fraudulent or nonsense. We want to make sure we keep that out. So in the second round of SciFund we used a volunteer peer review system of scientists running the proposals, and every scientists had to write an abstract of about 200 words just to ensure that stuff was on the level.

The aim is not to pick the best science, that's not the point. We had very specific criteria.

The criteria is:
-The project must not be fraudulent. You are not trying to cure Alzheimer's disease with crystals, nothing like that.
-It has to be within the bounds of reality of your discipline, so no perpetual motion machines
-It also has to be real. It has to make sense. Trying to raise $2000 to go to your field site in Africa? Well that makes sense - you can see how that would work. Trying to raise $2000 to build a particle accelerator? - That's not going to work.

I would say it is a pretty loose filter, just to make sure everybody is on the level.

Ruth: It is interesting that you are still using a form of peer review. When I first heard of SciFund there were people responding with cynicism that it wouldn’t have the same level of quality of science. I once saw a person saying it would be "all polar bears and no bacteria" -that the science would be all populist.

Jai: In fact that hasn't been true at all. Some of our best projects, some of our best funded projects, have been people working on mouse duct bacteria and projects looking at core ecological statistics. We run SciFund as an experiment and we collect tons of data on the way. We publish results on our blog and in literature discussing what it takes to get funded. And ultimately what it takes is your messaging. Can you create a compelling message about your science? And I fundamentally believe that you can create a compelling message about all science. Now, is it slightly more achievable if you are working on tigers or polar bears? Of course. You can do it all for science. And the proof is we have got a 135 projects through and it wasn’t 'oh I am working on polar bears' and get funded. It wasn’t like that at all. It really is just about getting the compelling message across.


The remainder of this interview addressing how it works as an international platform, the character of the funder and how it is different from Petridish and Fundageek will be published on ORGzine tomorrow.



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By Ruth Coustick on Aug 22, 2012

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