The Daily Gamecock

USC experiments with new option for research funds

Jennifer Pournelle doubts if crowd funding will replace traditional grants as a way of paying for research, but she’s glad it’s an option.

Pournelle, a research assistant professor in the Environment and Sustainability Program, this week became the first USC professor to use crowd funding to pay for research.

She raised $4,000 from 43 people on — a website that amounts to the Kickstarter of research — in a campaign that ended Wednesday.

And USC will match that money dollar-for-dollar, said Prakash Nagarkatti, USC’s vice president for research. Nagarkatti thinks USC might be the only university offering matching funds for the website.

So far, USC has only posted two or three projects to the website, but it’s vetting more that will be on the site soon, he said.

Pournelle and Nagarkatti both said they don’t think crowd funding will become a primary source of research money. Nagarkatti said he expects USC will spend about $50,000 to match donations; by comparison, the university brought in $220 million of grants last year.

But crowd funding has proven to be a powerful idea. Kickstarter, where people fund creative projects in return for gifts, has raised about $1.1 billion since it launched in 2009.

“We don’t know how much interest there’s going to be in the coming years,” Nagarkatti said. “Maybe all these sites become well-known. … Things could change.”

For now, Nagarkatti said, the website is helpful when faculty or students are kicking around an untraditional idea — say, an innovative smartphone app — or need to supplement grants they already have, because that money is tightly regulated.

Those kinds of needs, he said, wouldn’t be funded otherwise.

“It’s no strings attached, or you specify the strings,” Pournelle said.

And, Pournelle said, it’s good for when researchers need a small sum of money — and fast.
A month ago, she needed a few thousand dollars to buy a pair of plane tickets to Iraq, where she and her colleagues will meet with oil executives and vie for $2.5 million more. They plan to study if wastewater from oil drilling can be used to build marshes.

They’re flying out next week — not enough time to find traditional funding — but their grants can’t be spent on international travel. The speed and freedom, Pournelle said, makes crowd funding valuable.

Pournelle exceeded her initial goal of $2,500 by using Facebook and Google ads and the social media presence she already had. The excess cash will pay for lab testing.

Still, 4,000 — the amount of cash the website raised — isn’t the most important number from the project, Pournelle said.

Instead, 6,160 was, she said: That’s how many people visited the project’s page. Driving that sort of traffic to a university webpage is “very difficult,” Pournelle said.

“This is not just about fundraising. This is about outreach and publicity,” Pournelle said. “It’s a way of really helping to publicize the good work we’re doing.”


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