Physicist Mark Jackson believes a new funding model can support scientific research and outreach. His company Fiat Physica uses crowdfunding to let the public support science directly. I spoke with Mark recently about his company and the role that crowdfunding can play in modern science.
Fiat Physica is a crowdfunding platform specifically for physics, astronomy and space projects. Our goal is really to connect physics enthusiasts and potential donors with entrepreneurs and researchers who are creating technology that will shape the future of humankind.
We’ve had a very positive response. Just a few days ago we had a $1,000* donation to one of our projects. So its great to see this level of interest in things. A high quality science crowdfunding platform seems to be a niche that had not been addressed yet.
Mark’s vision emerged from his experience as a theoretical physicist researching cosmology. As he embarked on his academic career he experienced first hand the funding challenges that researchers face.
I spent 15 years researching theoretical physics and I became aware that on one hand there’s a funding problem: there’s a lot of great work that should be done but there aren’t funds available to do it. The funding levels at NSF and DOE and NASA are at an all time low. There’s often decades between when research is done and when the technology is developed. If a political cycle is four years, it’s difficult to make fundamental science a priority.
The funding crisis in basic research has many sources, but its impacts are consistent across many fields in many countries. Limited budgets result in fewer research grants that favor established scientists conducting high impact research with a high chance of success.
Young scientists or researchers taking the road less travelled, in other words those most likely to break new ground, have fewer chances to get their research funded. Fiat Physica is Mark’s attempt to find a new funding model by connecting researchers with a public fascinated by science.
The public loves science but there’s no opportunity to really get involved. When I started this I thought that the problem would be convincing the public that science is worth saving. What I found was actually the public loves science. People get so excited about space and astronomy. If you look at modern culture like the Big Bang Theory and The Martian and Interstellar, science is so cool right now.
But how to convert public enthusiasm into donations for research? Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter base their success on products and experiences. Successful campaigns deliver a gadget or a performance. But research may only generate more questions. Mark explained that Fiat Physica reassures potential backers with a combination of quality, impact, and honesty.
We vet the projects to make sure that they are scientifically legitimate. The mainstream crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo… are so general they can’t discriminate. There’s a lot of astrology or perpetual motion machines or just kind of kooky types of things. They are not able to ensure high quality science. We make every effort to make sure that these are high quality scientific projects.
We work with a non-profit organization called the Science Partnership Fund [to match donations]. They are able to collect donations from foundations and corporations that want to sponsor projects. So it should be possible for someone in the public to make a donation and the project leader actually receives twice the amount of donations.
We encourage [scientists] to be as honest about things as possible, to explain these are the risks and challenges that we expect and to explain any delays or problems. Research by definition means you don’t know how it will end up. You can’t offer tangible product at the end. We found that people are very understanding if you communicate with them.
Like many startups, Fiat Physica has had to be nimble. Much of its early success comes from an unexpected source: science outreach in developing countries. Astronomy Without Borders is a non-profit organization that promotes amateur astronomy and astronomy education. The Galileo Teacher Training Program is a non-profit that helps teachers incorporate astronomy into their classrooms. Both organizations support programs that expand astronomy in schools around the world, but the demand for funding far outstrips their resources. Mark explained how crowdfunding helps these astronomy non-profits extend their impact.
Leaders of these two organizations were actually the ones to suggest this partnership program. They are major international organizations and they have vast networks within the astronomy outreach community.
They are often getting requests for small amounts of money like an astronomy teacher in Africa [who] needs $300 for a telescope. It’s not much money but when they get that many requests they’re not able to satisfy all these demands.
One of Astronomy Without Borders’ current campaigns will distribute solar eclipse glasses to schoolchildren in central Africa. With a flexible funding format, every dollar the campaign raises will deliver a pair of glasses to a student. Astronomy Without Borders plans to distribute 37,000 glasses but can handle 100,000 with enough donations. Other Fiat Physica campaigns have a smaller scope like the campaign to support an amateur astronomer in India. He regularly conducts astronomy sessions with local schools and needs help buying a solar telescope. Astronomy Without Borders’ reputation and Fiat Physica’s global reach let the campaign hit its $600 goal within days of its launch.
I think they have run seventeen projects with us and fifteen have been successful. It’s nearly every one. What I personally like about it most is that these projects are usually in developing countries. This has been a great successful partnership with astronomy outreach.
Fiat Physica still faces challenges in an academic community used to the existing funding model. Scientists depend on grants from government agencies and philanthropists to keep their labs running. Mark is trying to convince universities and scientists to take a different approach.
University development officers are just more cautious about it. When I reached out to universities about setting up crowdfunding campaigns with us - it’s not that they see any disadvantage - they just seem unfamiliar with it. They are so accustomed to cultivating relationships with a few high net worth individuals. The advantage of crowdfunding is that you don’t just receive a check. You build this whole community base. You have this whole new set of people that are aware of what you are doing now.
Within the scientific community I have found that astronomers are very comfortable talking to the public. Theoretical scientists are not as comfortable with this just because they have never had to appeal to the public before.
I sometimes joked that it’s like online dating. There was a bit of a stigma attached to it and now that stigma is gone. Its very much the same with crowdfunding. When I started there was some perception that if you have to use crowdfunding its because you’re not capable of raising money in the normal ways. But that stigma is quickly evaporating.
Mark’s long-term vision is for Fiat Physica to serve as a science-centric venue that connects scientists with a public increasingly willing to support their research.
We began operations about a year ago and we’ve only had our full website set up about six months ago. Now we have the technical infrastructure set up and we’re quickly setting up a lot of successful projects.
We’re now talking with a lot of organizations about partnerships [like the one with Astronomy Without Borders]. Cern and Fermi Lab and Nasa and other organizations often get a lot of requests for money and they can’t satisfy them all. We’re looking for ways that we can take some of this off their shoulders. We are also actively seeking sponsors from foundations or corporations so that if a good project does come along we can bring it to their attention.
Fiat Physica is still in startup mode. When you check out its current fundraising campaigns you will see lots of outreach programs (which are well worth funding) but no research projects. That is understandable given the cultural shift the science community must make.
But I think it is clear that Mark and his team at Fiat Physica is on the right track. I have written before about how an emergency fundraising campaign saved the MilkyWay@Home project’s search for dark matter. Other science programs turned to the public when traditional funding fell through. Citizen science platform CosmoQuest used annual Hangout-a-thons to survive the loss of its Nasa grants. Earlier this year Yale University researchers Kickstarted a $100,000 astronomy research project. The science culture is already shifting.
It will take time for scientists to figure out how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign. What kinds of research are fundable? How do you foster the community? Fiat Physica provides a science-first venue that will let the research community find a formula that works. And along the way, Mark explains, anyone can help advance science education in communities around the world.
Personally what I love about this is that people can see the scientific process actually take place and especially in developing countries. Who knows what the benefit of getting this many kids excited about astronomy will be decades from now? One of them could be the next Einstein. Even if that doesn’t happen at least there’s a whole generation of kids who appreciate science.
You can help Fiat Physica by supporting its outreach campaigns. And if you are a scientist, why not try the crowdfunding waters? The public is waiting to support you.
* Edit July 21: In the time between my conversation with Mark and the posting of my article, the $10,000 donor contacted Mark. They meant to donate $1,000 but typed an extra zero. (ooops!) I changed Mark's quote to reflect this. For the record, Mark refunded the donor's accidental $9,000 donation.