Procuring funds for research is the flip side of a scientist’s livelihood.

But in the age of budget cuts and sequestration, funding from sources such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) is drying up, forcing scientists to find creative ways to keep research and innovation alive.

So while some have gone the way of Galileo and Charles Darwin, paying for their research out-of-pocket, those who lack personal and family fortunes are taking a grassroots approach by appealing to the public through crowdfunding.

Evon Hekkala, assistant professor of biology, is using crowdsourcing to fund research that she and her students are conducting jointly with the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Janet Sassi

Crowdfunding (also called crowdsourcing) is, simply put, a form of digital fundraising. In the spirit of old-fashioned bake sales, websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo allow individuals and groups to raise money for a project by receiving small amounts of money from a large number people. These online platforms sponsor causes that span the fundraising spectrum; from disaster relief, to startup companies, to support for starving artists.

Assistant Professor of biology Evon Hekkala, Ph.D., is pioneering the use of crowdfunding at Fordham, having set up a fundraiser on Microryza, a science-specific platform (the site’s mission is “science for the people, by the people”). Hekkala and her students launched a 45-day campaign on the site to raise $13,000 toward a project on genetic variation in museum specimens.

“After eight unsuccessful NSF submissions, we decided to take it straight to the people,” Hekkala said.

The project, “DNA from Dioramas,” is an ongoing collaboration between Hekkala’s lab and the American Museum of Natural History. The research team samples DNA from animal specimens that the museum collected during an expedition to the Congo a century ago, and which are now on display in the museum’s dioramas. In doing so, the team can learn how the region has changed over the century.

“There are thousands of specimens from the expedition 100 years ago that we can compare to animals and populations that are in the Congo now,” Hekkala said. “Depending on what our data shows, we can add to the signage and share with the public the updated research that’s ongoing at the museum and here in our lab. It’s a great educational opportunity for the millions of people who see the dioramas every year.”

Hekkala and her students are undertaking a social media blitz to promote their campaign, broadcasting their Microryza page across Facebook and Twitter, sending word out in email blasts, and soliciting social media mentions from science journalists.

“You have to be constantly promoting it. You can’t let it just sit to raise its own money,” Hekkala said. “But if you frame it in the right way, it can be effective for anyone.”

Crowdfunding research in academia has appealed to researchers who are strapped for cash, but has left has left some universities uncertain about how to handle money that comes from crowdfunding. Some, such as the University of Arizona, have barred faculty and staff from using the sites until the school can craft a policy on the technique.

Because Hekkala is the first at Fordham to undertake the initiative officially, the Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP) is letting the process unfold organically. Determining how to catalog the donations she receives is somewhat tricky, though, said Kris Wolff, manager of the OSP.

“The usual checklist of things that determine that money is grant rather than a gift are not present,” she said.

The office cannot simply classify the funds as grants, Wolff said, because grants often require an end product, such as a publication, and demand stringent financial reporting (the latter of which is a requirement of University auditors as well). Crowdfunding websites do not set such requirements. However, forgoing the “grant” classification would exclude faculty from certain OSP resources, and could mean that these funds are not taken into consideration when faculty come up for tenure review.

“I think we will all have to relax our definitions, because this is probably going to become more popular with the tightening of federal research budgets. In ten years, it might be completely normal for someone to fund an entire project through crowdfunding,” Wolff said.

“We need to lay the groundwork now to allow for that to happen. If we don’t, we could miss out on an important source of research dollars.”