I've done it. As a member of generation X, it was only a matter of time, really.
Before I sought non-traditional funding sources, a-la crowdfunding. (it's here!)
Funding projects via public donations, also referred to as crowdfunding, has been wildly successful for financing all sorts of imaginative (I invested in the dino-pet on kickstarter, such a neat idea!) and useful products. It has done things like help the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Square, be made; reinvent the way we charge our mobile devices (e.g. Jump cable); fund rural development projects (check out this one on indiegogo); and so much more.
A lot of people feel that crowdfunding really started taking off during the economic downturn, when the money dried up for financing new businesses and giving entrepeneurs a boost. Well, scientists are facing those same financial difficulties: the 2013 government sequester dropped funding for R&D by 5% across the board. With funding only somewhat restored this budget go-around, the outlook isn't expected to improve any time soon. Combine flat funding rates with with constantly increasing operating costs, and many scientists across all scientific fields, whether it be quantum mechanics or educational theory, are feeling the pinch.
But, after talking to people one-on-one about my research, I realize that lots of folks really do care about science, and want to support it. That's what makes crowdfunding so appealing. It empowers the individual to decide exactly what research they believe is worthy of their hard-earned paycheck. Obviously there are many scientific ventures that may not fare well in the public arena, which reinforces the need to have a diversity of government, non-profit, and other private funding sources available. But for some projects with tangible societal outcomes, crowdfunding can be a great resource, particularly when the public receives a tangible outcome. Take a look at the "American Gut" project, housed right here at CU Boulder. Anyone (American's only, sorry!) can make a donation, receive a sampling kit, and make a real contribution to the scientific process.
As for my approach to crowdfunding, I've teamed up with a great group called #SciFund. A few years ago, Jarrett Byrnes and Jai Ranganathan co-founded SciFund with the mission of strengthening connections between scientists and the public through education, awareness, and fundraising campaigns like the SciFund Challenge, of which I am currently participating.
So much emphasis these days is on the ability of scientists to translate their research to the public. Turns out that engaging the public in, for example, microbial ecology, can be a tall task. But with crowdfunding, being clear and articulate in a non-jargony way is absolutely essential. Regardless of whether I make my funding goal (which would be AWESOME!), the skills I've learned will help immensely in the future, I am confident in that. And as much as overworked and underpaid graduate students might disagree, they would all stand to benefit from going through this sometimes tortuous process. As a learning experience :)
6 paragraphs later, and I still haven't even pitched my project! I'm too meek to come right out and ask. Anyways, I'd like to understand whether microbes could be used as indicators of methane contamination from natural gas extraction activities, so that we can develop a long-term monitoring tool for keeping our groundwater safe. Check it out at https://experiment.com/methane, and if you like the idea and want to support it, please make a donation of any amount! But do it soon: the campaign ends March 7, 2014! Thanks, all.