Dam project proves power of science crowdfunding

Sao Simao Reservoir
Copyright: NASA/ISS

Speed read

  • Public agree to fund environmental report into Brazilian mining disaster
  • US crowdfunding site Experiment.com has raised US$3 million in five months
  • Method engages public and allows them to shape research agenda

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[RIO DE JANEIRO] Just weeks after two dams collapsed in Brazil, releasing a flood of toxic mining waste, a crowdfunding campaign to pay for an independent environmental report into the disaster’s impact has exceeded its target.

“This is one of the biggest environmental disasters that ever happened in Brazil, involving rivers and local populations,” says the crowdfunding page of the researchers behind the campaign, which asked the public to pay what they could.

The dams, owned by mining companies Vale and BHP Billiton, burst on 5 November, killing at least 11, leaving 12 missing and 750 homeless, and contaminating the waters of the Rio Doce.

“The success of the campaign shows that the general public cares about science, and it sends a powerful message to the government.”

Suzana Herculano-Houzel

“Considering the vague response of the public institutions and the economic power of the parties involved, it is extremely important to have an independent and impartial report,” the researchers add. So far, the campaign has raised 144 per cent of its 50,000 real (US$13,300) target.

More and more scientists in developing countries are turning to crowdfunding to get research off the ground. Not only is it a way to fill gaps in traditional research funding, but it can also be a valuable way to engage the public and attract funding from other sources, researchers say.

Crowdfunding is an established way to fund arts or social projects and is now becoming increasingly common for scientific ones, too. For example, science projects all around the world have raised more than US$5 million from US science crowdfunding website Experiment.com since 2012. Of this total, US$3 million were pledged in the last five months.

Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel for one, raised more than 100,000 reals (US$26,600) in a month to secure the continuity of her research in a campaign that closed last week. Her work at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro was at risk, as her grant payments from the national research funding agency were nearly a year late, she says.

“When I launched the crowdfunding campaign, I was on the brink of shutting down the laboratory and sending home a team of 14,” she says. “The success of the campaign shows that the general public cares about science, and it sends a powerful message to the government.” Brazil’s research funding agency did not respond to SciDev.Net’s request for comment.

In China, a project to sequence the genome of the Bauhinia tree, an orchid that is on Hong Kong’s flag, aims to raise US$10,000 and awareness through a similar campaign.

“In Hong Kong, the spending in science and R&D is very low. That’s why we decided to start a campaign,” say Rob Davidson and Scott Edmunds, the organisers of the project. “We want people to get involved, and we plan to use the sequencing data in education projects.” The pair work at BGI, a leading genome sequencing centre im China.

Steven McPhee, a primatologist at Florida Atlantic University in the United States, raised US$10,000 in 2013 through a crowdfunding campaign to buy cameras and other equipment to monitor the lesula monkey in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Setting up a campaign pushes scientists to learn how to communicate and engage with the public, he says.

He adds that crowdfunding is a growing trend in developing countries that can also engage local staff and communities. “Many of the research assistants [involved in the lesula project] have come out of African universities and are highly skilled,” he says.

Alphonsus Neba, programme manager of DELTAS Africa, an initiative to support the development of high-quality researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa, says: “The concept of crowdfunding is not really new in Africa or other developing countries.” But, he adds, it could allow lay funders to influence the research agenda and could use the principle of match funding to significantly increase the money available for scientific research.