Feature Interview: SciFund Challenge Part 2

"A science literate society would be where the public is connected to the science process." We feature the second part of ORGzine's interview with Dr Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of the SciFund Challenge crowdsourcing platform.

Image: CC-BY-NC-ND Flickr: rizziemelb

 Following on from yesterday's Part I of ORGzine's interview with Dr Jai Ranganathan we conclude the discussion by talking further about who is funding the projects on the crowd-sourcing platforms, the problems of open access and how SciFund stands out from other similar platforms like Petridish. I recommend reading Part I to learn more about what SciFund is about.

Ruth: What is the demographic who are funding the projects? Is it the general public or other scientists?

Jai: It is all based on networks. We had a huge push out when SciFund happened. There was some group effect for being on SciFund. I would say that for the most part the money on SciFund came from the scientists own networks asking friends to ask friends and that sort of thing. So that is largely where they came from and building that audience is where you get started. The point here isn’t so much to ask for money it is to start a conversation.

So here is the model. The model is that scientists over the course of a year are on a regular basis reaching out with their science, giving public talks, blog posts -it doesn’t really matter what they are doing, it just matters that they are doing it on a semi-regular basis. And over the course of the year let's say they reach a 1000 people with their science message, some more some less interested. So then every so often you put a pitch out for cash and say 10 % of those people will kick up some bucks and get the science rolling. So that’s the model.

Imagine what that would look like if every scientists was directly connected to 1000 people Multiply that by all the scientists in this world. Wow. How many more people would be connected to science than they are now? This is what you call the virtuous cycle. You reach out to your audiences, not with a message saying "give me money", that is not a winning message. The message is just your science and every so often, whether or not people give money, there are still more people paying attention.


Ruth: So do you have a similar model for how the message gets back out to the people when they are finished with the project? Are you using a Creative Commons license or passing the research back to those who backed the project originally?

Jai: It is definitely something we are considering for the next round, requesting that people make their science available through open access. We do that ourselves with our research and that we are publishing through PloS One, which is an open access journal, about SciFund and what we are doing and all our results are published on our blog as well.

But for other scientists it is their call. We are also asking whether we want to make open access a requirement to be involved. Now as you know most/all open access journals they charge -it is an author pay model so that, for example, for PloS One to publish a paper costs $13000 and so if you look at the amounts being raised through SciFund they are still small for scientists - in the thousands range. So that is the tension there. If people were raising $100,000, then making it a requirement to use open access would be an easier requirement, but at this point where it still costs money and they don’t have an extra $15000 lying around -that is definitely a tension at this point.


Ruth: But something that you may discuss with the next wave of scientists?

Jai: It is absolutely the case that open access is super-connected to what we are doing with crowd-sourcing. And we definitely want to recommend it. The question is how do we make things more alive?

Another movement that is connected is open notebook science which is where scientists are publishing their results, prior to their papers being published, on blogs or open forums. So publishing as it happens in real time. We can model that in SciFund. We have been pushing our results out to everyone.

Ruth: If you publish as you go along does it also encourage people to publish failed results? With the crowd-funding style is there a possible sense of disappointment if the results are not those that were expected?

Jai: I think the first thing is that crowd funding for science is different to say crowd-funding for a band. It is very common for a band to put up a request to get recording time for a new album and so the product there is the album and if they don’t make the album the thing is a big bust.

The model is different for science. So say we are going to go out Borneo and study orang-utans and publish our results about it. Well the product there, at least as far as the public are concerned, as far as I am concerned, isn’t that final paper about orang-utans it s the connection to the scientists over time. Science is the process and the results are just the by product. The product is finding out how the science happens. I don’t think there is a real sense of failure, unless the scientists doesn’t do anything but most scientists are workaholics so I don’t think there is much chance of that.


Ruth: I like the idea of creating a community between scientists and the general public and I think this is very worthwhile.

Jai: The question is what is a science literate society? And the general response is 'people know more facts', but I think that is the wrong way of thinking about it. I mean I have a Ph.D. in Biology but I know less than nothing about Physics. You know the world of science is too big. Too many facts to know. I think a better way, a more useful way, for a science literate society would be where the public is connected to the science process.

You know the science process is considered a state secret. I only first knew what the science process was when I was in my Master's for God's sake. So here is my vision of the future. A person is following a scientist on a semi-regular basis and sees how their science is done and in the process learns about the scientific method. What is the scientific method about other than being transparent about what you are doing, and having people check your work? That’s it. So say they are following a physicist and hey hear something in the news about some anti-vacine nonsense and they say 'wait a minute I don’t know anything about Biology, but I do know the scientific process and this isn’t that. This seems like something different.' And that's the whole point to connect people to the science process.


Ruth: One of the other things I was wondering is, as an American based site, do you offer opportunities for people from other countries to use the same process?

Jai: Oh yeah we have had people from 12 different countries as part of the last wave of projects. People from UK, people from Europe, people from New Zealand, Australia, people from all over the place.

Ruth: That's excellent. To me science should be internationally focused.

Jai: It's funny you should say that as the best example for science crowd funding is based in the UK.

You know about Cancer Research UK right?

Ruth: Yes

Jai: Well do you know about their crowd-funding? - I'll send you the link to it. Well they are the leaders as far as I am concerned. They feature specific research projects on their site. It's not like 'raise money for breast cancer research' it is this scientist is working on a gene... It is funding the core science directly. They are, on a very regular basis, raising £50 thousand, £100 thousand, not for breast cancer generally, but specific scientists on specific cancer related work. The reason they are able to raise those kinds of dollars, or pounds, is because it is not drawing off at a network for the scientist, but drawing off the network support of Cancer Research UK.

Ruth: How do you feel about similar science-based projects like Fundageek, Petridish and Peerbackers? Do you see yourself as providing a different type of crowd-sourcing or do you see all of these projects as simply contributing to an increased interest in science ?

Jai: I think at this point the more the merrier because there are so good ones, some bad and some medium ones and so the more the merrier frankly.


Ruth: I was just going to finish by asking you where you see the future of the SciFund challenge?

 Jai: Well for now we are just going to keep going in this rounds fashion.

 Ok, just to back up a moment. You asked 'what makes SciFund different?' and I think there is something which makes SciFund very different from any other crowd-sourcing platform. It is that we set this up very much on the values of scientists engaging online and making a community. And I should say that, by the way, SciFund is not a business, we are not making any money off this. We are all working for for-profit organisations, but SciFund itself doesn’t make any money.

 The people really responded to our mission. If you look at the values of a science online community it is all based on transparency and engagement and support and that is what we are all about. So if you look at every other site each project is on its own. On SciFund you are not on your own because all the SciFund scientists are helping each other because everyone needs help. If you are making science that is great for the general public you are going to need help with that -everyone does. So for SciFund we make it very clear that it is a group exercise.

 If there is anything that makes SciFund different it is the philosophy that we all rise together.


Ruth: This has been really interesting and it has been great speaking to you. Thank you very much.

For more on SciFund check their blog and find Dr Jai Ranganathan's tweets at @jranganathan.
You can follow Ruth as zine Editor on @ORGzine

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By Ruth Coustick on Aug 23, 2012

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