Jul 122011
 
Kickstarter

Image by Laughing Squid via Flickr

In January, a time when many scientists concentrate on grant proposals, Jennifer D. Calkins and Jennifer M. Gee, both biologists, were busy designing quail T-shirts and trading cards.

The T-shirts went for $12 each and the trading cards for $15 in a fund-raising effort resembling an online bake sale.

The $4,873 they raised, mostly from small donations, will pay their travel, food, lab and equipment expenses to study the elegant quail this fall in Mexico.

“Each radio transmitter costs $135,” said Dr. Gee, interim manager of the Robert J. Bernard Biological Field Station in Claremont, Calif. “The receiver used to track birds is $1,000 to $2,000.”

As research budgets tighten at universities and federal financing agencies, a new crop of Web-savvy scientists is hoping the wisdom — and generosity — of the crowds will come to the rescue. While nonprofit science organizations and medical research centers commonly seek donations from the public, Dr. Calkins, an adjunct professor of biology at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and Dr. Gee may have been the first professional scientists to use a generic “crowd funding” Web site to underwrite basic research.

In May 2010, neither had the principal investigator status required to apply through their institutions for a National Science Foundation grant. But they were eager to begin collecting data about the behavior, appearance, distribution, habitat selection and phylogenic position of the least-studied quail species in the Callipepla genus.

Dr. Calkins, who has published research papers and poetry, turned to the community of artists and microphilanthropists at Kickstarter.com. Her plea to potential backers on the site: “By contributing to this project you will support a study of this little known species as we examine its behavior and evolution in its natural habitat, a space encroached upon by both urban sprawl and tension surrounding narcotics trafficking.”

Web sites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and RocketHub are an increasingly popular way to bankroll creative projects — usually in film, music and visual arts. It is not very likely that anyone imagined they would be used to finance scientific research. And it is unclear what problems this odd pairing might beget.

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