Assistant Professor of Biology David Esteban’s new project is two experiments in one. His scientific goal is to study the role of viruses in the soil, but he is also hoping to accomplish this research with money from a new method of funding heretofore untested in all of Vassar’s history.
In order to secure funds for his research, Esteban has looked to crowdfunding, a strategy that uses an Internet platform to raise large sums of money through small individual donations from hundreds or thousands of users. As of the night of publication, the project has raised $770 on its way to the $4500 goal, with 32 days remaining. If he and his research team don’t make that benchmark, they won’t get any funding.
Underlying the turn to crowdfunding is the decline of the traditional source for scientific research. Faculty research at Vassar often relies on government agencies like the National Institute for Health or the National Science Foundation (NSF). Years of congressional budget cuts, however, have made these grants more and more competitive. According to www.nature.com, federal spending on research and development declined by 16.3 percent from 2010 to 2013 alone.
Facing a more difficult grant process, Esteban started searching more or less wherever he could find money to support his research. “I had heard about this site called Experiment.com and I thought ‘oh I might as well try that and see if that could supplement or be a bridge between grants,’” he said.
Completing a smaller, shorter-term project on virology would put Esteban in a better position—both in terms of experience and data—for proposing a large-scale, long-term project that would require government funds.
Before moving forward, he reached out to Vassar’s Grant Office and Gary Hohenberger, Director of Corporate, Foundation, and Government Relations.
Hohenberger shared that in the past year the College requested $10.6 million in grants from an array of public and private institutions. Of that sum, $3.5 million was actually awarded. Focusing specifically on the NSF, the college submitted 10 grant applications last year, of which so far four have been approved.
Hohenberger explained that, in his experience, this success rate of roughly 40 percent is more or less typical for Vassar applicants; a strong performance compared to the 28 percent success rate for all proposals submitted to the NSF. Working alongside faculty members as they prepare their grant proposals, Hohenberger has noticed some changes nonetheless.
“I’ve sensed an increase in just general anxiety about the likelihood of the funding, an awareness that the budgets are constrained and its more competitive,” he said. It’s partly why Esteban’s idea of using crowd-funding intrigued him
“Once we had some of the basic questions answered everyone supported in principle as an opportunity to complement both extra and intramural funding sources for faculty but also as a new mode for fund raising,” said Hohenberger.
It became clear early on that the success of Esteban’s project would hinge on making the science accessible to the average readers. Traditional grants submitted to the NSF are peer reviewed, written for the eyes of group of specialists. One the other hand, the public proposals on Experiment.com have to be understood by scientist and lay person alike.
“Regardless of how an experiment is funded it should be well-designed,” said Esteban. “However, I did choose one, a particular experiment that I thought would be most interesting and that we could explain in a small amount of time.”
Maggie Ginoza ’16 is assisting Esteban with the project’s lab work along with its publicity. She created the video accompanying the project on Experiment.com, and she has also been reaching out to the Vassar Alumni Association and other college-affiliated organizations.
A Science, Technology and Society Major, Ginoza explained her attraction to the research. “This project was well-suited for my major because I got to learn and do a lot with science about the project itself, but also sort of looking at the broader structures involved in scientific funding and looking at new ways new methods of funding,” she said.
The only time viruses win public attention is when they pose a threat. While outbreaks of Ebola or H1N1 may make front-page news, the countless, totally harmless viruses in the air, water and earth are virtually ignored.
Esteban and his team are aiming to fill a gap of knowledge in microbiological sciences by studying the interactions between the viral and bacterial communities. Esteban’s research assistant, Ginoza explained how they plan on filling up glass cylinders with soil. The airtight the cylinders, called Winogradsky Columns, are a visual tool to examine microbiology. Said Ginoza, “You may not be able to see the individual bacteria and viruses but you can see that things are changing and growing over time, and you can see different colors of bacteria growing and dying off.”
Ginoza and Esteban will then send the columns for DNA sequencing. More than 90 percent percent of the project’s $4500 is reserved for this step alone. Identifying the viruses present could lead to insight into the relationship among viruses, bacteria and the environment.
The record on crowd-funding projects is mixed and speaks more to the Internet’s caprice. Successful and popular projects posted on Kickstarter include the feature-length Veronica Mars movie that obtained over $5 million in funding. Meanwhile, the past August a young man’s proposal for $10 to make a potato salad raised more than $55,000.
The website Experiment.com, however, appears to have safeguards in place to weed out unserious applicants. Before any proposal is posted on the site, it has to be approved by a panel of scientists. Their model differs from other crowd funding sites in another important way. Backers to a project on Kickstarter or GoFundMe will receive recognition through some type of prize, larger donations being compensated with prizes of higher value. Experiment.com backers, on the other hand, never receive any material compensation—giving is its own reward.
As Ginoza said, “The idea is that you are trying to promote science and that you are giving back the knowledge to the community and keeping them in the loop and updated with your research.”
Hohenberger feels that the popularity of crowdfunding scholarship might be around for awhile. He said, “Experiment.com is fairly new and I would like to see it perpetuated.”
He then added, “The mechanics are difference, but fundamentally it’s the same. You have an objective, you need money to reach that objective, and you have to justify both your need and what you want to accomplish.”
Esteban also reports enthusiasm among his colleagues, and said, “I think the department is always excited of seeking research funds however we can get it—traditional or not traditional.”