The best new scientific idea in years

Crowdfunding site Kickstarter has now successfully helped more than one project earn over $1 million, turning the traditional model of media production on its ear. What if we could do the same thing for science? With government spending for the sciences on the decline, entrepreneur Matt Salzberg saw an opportunity. He'd create a crowdfunding site for scientists, where researchers could get funding directly from the public. Last week, he and his team launched Petridish.org, and they've already got reputable researchers whose projects are almost funded after just a few days. Could this be the future of publicly funded science?

If you visit Petridish right now, you'll see a handful of projects — all from reputable scientists associated with institutions like NASA, the California Academy of Sciences, and Stanford University — that request fairly modest sums to do incredibly important work. It's all basic research, and ranges from searching for exomoons (moons in other solar systems), to tracking endangered sea turtles, recording the sounds of undersea ecosystems (how cool is that?), to discovering new species of ants in uncharted regions of Madagascar. The videos of the scientists requesting funds are geeky and lo-fi, but still incredibly exciting. Imagine helping somebody discover weird new life forms in the ocean!

Salzberg, a former venture capitalist, told io9 that the goal of the site isn't to build science-related businesses. He just wants researchers to get financial help to do basic research. "There's so much more interesting science than there is funding," he lamented, adding that most funding sources in the sciences require researchers to go through a "slow, labor-intensive process" that most of them "simply find painful." He hopes that Petridish can help these researchers get the initial money they need to gather preliminary results and data, which they can then use to apply for larger grants from the NIH or NSF. Plus, of course, he wants to get the public more engaged with scientific research. "What we want to do is allow people who aren't scientists to feel like they're part of making new discoveries happen," Salzberg said.

Petridish will make money the same way Kickstarter does, by taking a 5% transaction fee off the top of donations. He says Petridish will vet the researchers, weeding out "junk science like perpetual motion machines." They will also encourage scientists to make their work as accessible as possible in order to get the public engaged. Right now, he imagines the projects that will work best will be in the areas of astronomy, wildlife studies, archaeology, and eventually medicine and health.

Salzberg also emphasized that the amounts of money people are seeking may seem small, but are actually quite significant. "You can do a lot of interesting science with 10 thousand dollars," he explained. "People think that science is really expensive because they imagine particle accelerators but for most types of work you can do a ton with small amounts. And with 100 thousand, or one million — well that would be completely transformative for how scientific research gets done." Often, a big grant from the NSF will be just a few hundred thousand dollars. So if Petridish can start bringing in donations on the same level as Kickstarter in a couple of years, we might really be witnessing the birth of a new model of public science funding.

If you want to donate — or just learn more — visit Petridish. And recommend it to anybody who cares about basic science.