Funding the search for dark matter with citizen science

Full disclosure: I donated to Milkyway@Home's 2014/15 fundraiser and to the 2015/16 fundraiser. At no time did I discuss this with Dr. Newberg or her team while writing this article.

The Milky Way strips a captured dwarf galaxy of its stars as dark matter twists and warps the resulting tidal stream. Comparing the result of simulations like this to the actual distribution of stars in the galactic halo will let Milkyway@Home scientists map otherwise invisible dark matter. Source: Shane Reilly, Milkyway@home

Milkyway@Home is in trouble. The citizen science-powered search for our galaxy’s dark matter lost all of its federal funding last year. It only survived thanks to support from its volunteer community - and personal sacrifice by its science team. But US funding for basic science hasn’t improved. Once more Milkyway@Home is calling for help. 

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Following up on my 2014 article “Milkyway@Home volunteers rescue the crowdsourced search for dark matter”, I interviewed principal investigator Dr. Heidi Newberg, graduate student Jake Weiss, and community moderator Pete Boulay about Milkyway@Home’s struggles and how public participation has kept this amazing project alive.

What is Milkyway@Home?

This schematic illustrates the Milky Way's structure. The central bulge and spiral disk are surrounded by a halo of stars and dark matter. Some of those stars orbit the galaxy in tidal streams created as the Milky Way rips apart captured dwarf galaxies.  Source: Matthew Newby, Milkyway@home

The Milky Way’s central bulge, barred spiral disk, and spattering of stars in the galactic halo comprise only 10% of our galaxy’s mass. All of the rest lies in a halo of dark matter invisible to science except for the way its gravity interacts with normal matter. The Milkyway@Home project maps dark matter distribution by comparing simulations of the Milky Way’s evolution to the actual distribution of stars in the galactic halo. Modeling a galaxy requires supercomputer-level number crunching, but Dr. Newberg did not have the multi-million dollar cost of a dedicated supercomputer. In 2007 she asked citizen scientists around the world for their help. More than 195,000 people have donated the extra computing power from their personal computers to crunch the numbers - in effect creating a globally distributed supercomputer.

“We are currently at a point where we can have the major Milky Way dwarf galaxy tidal streams mapped within the next couple years if we try really hard,” Weiss explained. “Once that is done though we hope to have a new application to map the disk of the Milky Way.”

 [My original article has a more detailed explanation of Milkyway@Home and its science.]

2014/15: Surviving With a Little Help From Their Friends

Last year the National Science Foundation declined to renew Dr. Newberg’s research grant, sending her scrambling to keep the project alive. Unlike most researchers in her position, Dr. Newberg has a community of volunteers who care dearly about the project. By dropping to a skeleton operation and making personal sacrifices, a $40,000 crowdfunding campaign would keep Milkyway@Home going for one more year. 

“We actually broke through the $40K goal and hit $50K,” Dr. Newberg told me. Weiss added, “we were extremely successful due to our volunteers’ generosity.”

“My life is about helping other people,” Milkyway@Home volunteer Pete Boulay says. “Any way I can help other people I’m going to do it.” Source: Pete Boulay

One of those supporters is Pete Boulay. When he joined Milkyway@Home, he saw it as a fun way to use the computers he has at home. He became more involved over time, first as a community moderator, and now as a fundraiser. 

“I have a background in professional fundraising,” Boulay explained. “Personally I have raised over $10,000 for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life.”

Boulay also contributes to Bitcoin Utopia, an effort to convert bitcoin mining into support for scientific research projects. “Next thing you know I was like hey this is a way that I can help raise money for other distributed computing projects,” Boulay said. “Dr. Newberg said go ahead and give it a try. I think we are just about at the point of raising another $2,500 which would bring up [the total] to $5,000 that I've been able to assist with.”

Thanks to support from Boulay and his fellow MilkyWay@Home volunteers, Dr. Newberg’s team did more than just survive. “We would not still be running or learning about the Milky Way with MilkyWay@home if it was not for them,” Weiss said. Among their accomplishments during the 2014/15 academic year:

2015/16: Dark Times for Dark Matter

But good science and public engagement aren’t enough these days. The NSF and Nasa account for 98% of astrophysics funding in the United States. Both agencies are struggling to deal with reductions to their research budgets, making competition for grants tougher than ever.

“One problem for all of us,” Dr. Newberg explained, “is that the National Science Foundation does not like to fund operations. They like to fund new directions that you have already shown are highly likely to work. After that you either need to build new functionality or you need an alternate business model.”

“With our current budget, our team is quite understaffed,” Weiss said. “In the summer, we would commonly have a large group of undergraduate students and graduate students all working together to bring improvements to our our code.”

The Nasa grant program Dr. Newberg would normally apply to did not award grants last year and its prospects for the coming year depend on the outcome of the Washington budget process. The NSF declined her latest Milkyway@Home proposal. It also declined to renew America’s participation in China’s Lamost spectrographic survey project which Dr. Newberg facilitated. 

Once again the Milkyway@Home team must turn to the community - and supporters of good science everywhere - for their help. A higher $118,371 goal lifts Milkyway@Home's 2015/16 budget out of survival mode by supporting the full team of graduate and undergraduate students:

  • $90,871 for graduate and undergraduate student salaries
  • $18,750 for academic conferences and publishing papers
  • $5,000 for fundraising
  • $3,750 for server upgrades and operations

Sacrificing for Science

Don’t come away from this thinking that crowdfunding solves Milkyway@Home’s problems. Far from it. Even with the extra money, the project's survival requires considerable personal sacrifice.

“The crowd funding that we did last year and are attempting this year are not sustainable for the long term,” Dr. Newberg said. “I have been working with significantly reduced salary and at the same time making personal donations to my students.”

Dr. Newberg has made even more sacrifices to make this year’s fundraising stretch further, 

“I personally donated my Breakthrough Prize ($33K),” she elaborated in a letter to the Milkyway@Home community. “I am also donating my time in the summer, which was once paid on my NSF grant, and am continuing to do research on my sabbatical this year, even though I am only receiving half of my normal academic year salary.”

Dr. Heidi Newberg and her dark matter-hunting minions. Standing at the far right is newly-minted astrophysicist Julie Dumas and graduate student Jake Weiss. Source: Newberg Research Group, Milkyway@Home

Despite Dr. Newberg’s efforts to shield her students, they also feel the pressure. “The financial struggles have made working on this project extremely difficult and stressful,” Weiss confided. “A lot of our time now is spent either setting up fundraisers or filling out grant and fellowship applications. I am plagued by the fact that we could run out of funding and I may not be able to complete my PhD.”

Dr. Newberg talked Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute into helping her students while she seeks a permanent solution. It let Dr. Newberg use her $33,000 Breakthrough Prize to help pay student salaries. The school also waived her graduate students’ tuition. “Without this,” Dr. Newberg added, “my students would be assisting with teaching 20 hours per week, and the research would move much more slowly.”

Making New Science Possible

Sacrifices and community support will let Dr. Newberg’s team accelerate their research to a more productive pace. Weiss described one of the projects they hope to pick up again:  “We are currently trying to create a version of our N-body application that runs on GPUs [personal computers’ multicore graphics processors]. This would not only allow us to run our work faster, but it would also allow us to use a currently untapped resource for this application. This project is delayed almost two years now since we are unable to fund enough students to properly develop it.”

With your help you can help the Milkyway@Home team complete a full slate of science objectives for the 2015/16 academic year. 

  • Use SDSS data to map stars in the galactic halo
  • Refine the algorithm simulating dark matter distribution
  • Investigate the origins of the Sagittarius Stream
  • Trace tidal streams with SDSS and Lamost data
  • Improve simulations with data from Lamost
  • Explore the MilkyWay’s corrugated structure

You Can Help

None of that can happen without your help. “Even $5, even $10 helps,” Boulay added. “The fact is that [if] we can get something we’re going to help the project.” If you give a little more, Milkyway@Home has several thank you gifts:

  • All Milkyway@Home members get virtual badges for their profiles. 
  • $20 donors get a Milkyway@Home sticker. 
  • $100 donors can wear a Milkyway@Home t-shirt with pride.
  • $1000 donors get a signed copy of “Tidal Streams in the Local Group and Beyond”.
  • $5000 donors will be acknowledged in published research papers.

RPI will accept donations on Milkyway@Home's behalf. Credit card and check donations are tax deductible for US citizens. You can also help by adding your computer to the Bitcoin Utopia network

As community becomes more important for Milkyway@Home, they have expanded their presence online. Besides the community forum, you can follow the project on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The Milkyway@Home YouTube channel features science videos for kids as well as astronomy lectures by Dr. Newberg and her team. You can learn more about Milkyway@Home’s science and how to participate on November 6 when the team conducts a Reddit AMA. (link to follow)

[10/25 Update - Clarified the status of Nasa grant program and clarified Peter Boulay's comments.]


If you liked my report on Milkyway@Home's fundraising campaign, check out these other articles based on interviews in the world of amateur space exploration: