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Crowdfund my meth lab, yo

August 8, 2013

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Might this be the future of serious Shroud of Turin
scientific research, conference funding, presentations and quality documentaries? Shroud Encounter, St. Louis 2014 and alternative dating research comes to mind.

Euny Hong, in Symposium Magazine, writes A Scientist Goes Rogue:

Can social media and crowdfunding sustain independent researchers?

Ethan Perlstein is a contradiction: an utterly modern researcher who hearkens to the 19th century tradition of the “gentleman scientist.”

Perlstein, a self-dubbed evolutionary pharmacologist with a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology from Harvard, is one of the most vocal members of the so-called independent scientist movement. As with many trailblazers, he had no intention of starting a revolution; rather, as he puts it, “my back was to the wall.”

That wall presented itself in the summer of 2012, when he was completing his fifth year as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton.

“I’d already gone through one year of the application cycle for assistant professorships and ran into a buzz-saw, because for one job opening, there are 300-400 applicants. I was preparing for a second bid,” he recalled. “I was told, ‘two years is nothing on the academic job market these days; you could be spending four years on the market. One postdoc is not enough these days; you need two postdocs.’ I just realized, I don’t want to do this. I want to do my science.”

The seeds for going rogue had been planted already on Twitter, where scientists were openly and honestly kvetching in a way that only really happens on social media. Some tweets were grim, such as: “80% of PhDs in biology don’t end up on the tenure track.” (For more on this, see Perlstein’s clever blog post, “The Tenure Games.”)

Until January 2011, he had no interest in Twitter, but once he created an account and started connecting with other scientists, he began to learn about alternative tracks for people in his situation. “People were talking about new ways to publish and review papers after publication, crowdfunding and all these alternative things, so I educated myself on these trends.”

He started to study the history of independent scientists and discovered that “it goes back to the gentleman scientist tradition, like Darwin. I thought, I don’t really want to resurrect that tradition of the male-dominated, aristocratic leader class, but they did come up with huge discoveries.”

As the term gentleman scientist implies, those people had money to play around with. Perlstein said, “The biggest stumbling block for someone who’s not a theorist in biology is that it’s so expensive to maintain a lab, and the supplies to use in that lab.” Perlstein’s specific area of biomedical research is particularly costly. So he made a very web 2.0 move: crowdfunding.

Perlstein cited a tweet he read recently, which called crowdfunding the “gateway drug” of the independent scientist. “I think there’s a ring of truth to that,” he added.

In September 2012, Perlstein decided to start a meth lab for mice to find out where radioactive amphetamines accumulate in mouse brain cells. He launched a crowdfunding campaign on the site Rockethub, a kind of Kickstarter for science for academic projects. The tag line, “Crowdfund my meth lab, yo,” was accompanied by a photo from Breaking Bad, about a teacher who runs a meth lab. The goal: to raise $25,000.

Read on

Categories: News & Views, Science
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  1. July 24, 2014 at 4:27 am
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