Ep. 617: Hangout-a-thon Episode 2 – Crowdfunding Science

Funding for basic science has always been tricky business, coming mainly from universities, government, companies, or wealthy individuals, but who knows how many fascinating discoveries were never made because of a lack of funding? We now live in an era where regular people can come together to find scientific discoveries.

Show Notes | Transcript

Show Notes

Dune (2021) (IMdB)

Inception (IMdB)

National Science Foundation


Example: The most mysterious star in the Galaxy (Kickstarter)

Weekly Space Hangout

The Planetary Society

Example: LightSail, a Planetary Society solar sail spacecraft (The Planetary Society)

B612 Foundation

Example: XCOR Lynx (Wikipedia)

Example: Planetary Resources (Wikipedia)

Example: Mars One

‘Space selfie’ project canceled: Planetary Resources offers Kickstarter refunds (Geek Wire)

Example: Uwingu

PODCAST: Escape Pod



MacArthur Foundation

The Second Shift (Wikipedia)

Patreon: Universe Today

Patreon: CosmoQuest

Back to Top


Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services

Fraser:                         Astronomy Cast episode 617. Crowdfunding Science. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of the Universe Today. With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela, how you doing?

Dr. Gay:                      I am doing remarkably well for someone who is now in – I think this is hour 30 at this point of 36 hours of streaming. There may be a few words missing from my brain, but there’s a lot of joy in my heart.

Fraser:                         Yeah, you were able to sleep last night a little bit, right? You got a nap?

Dr. Gay:                      Yeah. I slept for about five hours, and tomorrow I will be sleeping a bit later and then joining my team. And, I suspect we’re gonna be eating food and watching Dune because ‘tis the season. ‘Tis the season.

Fraser:                         ‘Tis Dune season.

Dr. Gay:                      Yes.

Fraser:                         Excellent. Well, congratulations on the hangout-a-thon so far. Of course, when the people listen to this episode, it will have already happened. But, here we are. All right. Speaking of hangout-a-thons, funding for basic science has always been tricky business coming mainly from universities, government companies, or wealthy individuals. But, who knows how many fascinating discoveries were never made because of a lack of funding? And, we now live in an era when regular people can come together to fund scientific discoveries. And, it’s kind of interesting because you have an enormous amount of experience.

I mean, literally, we are recording this episode of Astronomy Cast during an event where you are fundraising for an essentially scientific outreach and communication as well as the science, the crowdfunded science that gets done on CosmoQuest. So, this is very Ouroborosy snaking its own tail here.

Dr. Gay:                      I’d say it’s more like Inception.

Fraser:                         It’s Inception? Sure. Yeah.

Dr. Gay:                      It’s one of these things where a lot of people have realized that there’s just not enough funding going to science, especially when you consider that we’ve put so much money and effort into encouraging people to seek out careers in science. And so, every year, we’re graduating almost enough people to create an entire new national industrial astronomy complex. But, we’re only offering a handful of jobs to all those people.

Fraser:                         Yeah. I think this is the dirty secret of science, of STEM. Like, there’s always encouragement. Go into STEM. Go to university. If you love science, go into science. Get a career. Be a scientist. Spend $100,000 more to get your undergraduate, your master’s degree, your PhD, and when you come out, in some cases, there is one position for a hundred people that are competing for it. There is a serious lack of funding. And then, the funding that is there is directed towards sort of established institutional needs, corporate demands, governments, political bents or just the whims of some crazy, rich person.     

Dr. Gay:                      And, there’s even more strange details to it than that. So, one of the strange things is any given year, there will be hundreds, perhaps more, proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation all on November 15 for astronomy, planetary science, planetary geophysics proposals. All of these proposals go in; they get divided up into different panels. Galaxies go over here. Stars over there. Computational people over here. And, each of these panels that has to go through these proposals rank them from excellent down through to poor. And, you might end up with five, six proposals, all of which the panel really wants to fund, and there’s money for two.

Fraser:                         Right. Right. Or, one.

Dr. Gay:                      Yeah. And, sometimes, you’ll run into situations where the highest ranked proposal is also the most expensive, and choices have to be made between do we fund this project over here that all the money goes to one collaboration to do this really awesome big thing, or, do we fund these four smaller projects that fund the same number of people but to do four different things? And honestly, they will make the decision usually to fund the four different small things. And so, where you end up often ends up being not a matter of just how good you are, but how you rank up with other equally good proposals.

And, at the end of the day, it can come down to what the people reading your proposal ate for breakfast, whether you’re first or last read, and there is so much competition. There’s so many amazing researchers out there that it comes down to being excellent, doing hard work, having a great track record, and luck.

Fraser:                         Yes. So then, I’m not exactly sure when Kickstarter first formed, and I think there had been other projects like Kickstarter in the past as well. But, you have this idea for artwork, for movies, for video, for books, for things like that, an artist comes, goes directly to the fans, gathers up enough money to be able to produce a piece of work and get that out the door. And, it was wildly successful in a few situations and sort of took the technology world by storm. And, there were a lot of copycats and imitators. And, it had a pretty dramatic impact on just the legacy of the way art gets done. Not a full transformation, but it definitely made a difference.

Dr. Gay:                      And, with science, it opened an entirely new opportunity. With grant proposal writing, I would generally start writing my proposals July, August, turn them in November 15, and then, if I’m lucky, I will hear that I got selected in June, maybe, of next year. And, if I’m unlucky, and this happened to me last year, I will learn in September that my proposal was one of the ones right on the cusp, or, they’re waiting to see does Congress give them just a little bit more money because they’d love to fund you. Is there gonna be more money? No. End of the federal year hits, there’s no budget.

Fraser:                         See you next year.

Dr. Gay:                      And, with just six, 10 weeks to go before the next deadline, you find out your great idea of 12 months earlier is not gonna be funded, and you have to try again.

Fraser:                         Yeah. So, this idea of crowdfunding, Kickstarter, etc., which has worked very well in the art space and the technology space, some people tried to give this a shot in the science realm. So, can you give me some examples of crowdfunded science projects and sort of what was the goal there?

Dr. Gay:                      So, the most famous one is Tabby’s Star. There was a researcher I believe at Penn State, and, he had this amazing discovery of this oddball star that was dipping in brightness in ways that just made no sense from the initial observations. And, when your initial observations make no sense, you get more observations. But, observations can take money. They take time. They take resources that she didn’t have. And, this was a variable star, which meant there was a short lead time. She needed the data now before the star either stopped it’s weird behavior –

Fraser:                         Right. Yeah.

Dr. Gay:                      – perhaps permanently. And so, she said, “Hey, folks of the Internet. Step forward and help.” And, you’ve interviewed her, I believe.

Fraser:                         I don’t think I’ve actually talked to her specifically. No. But, yeah, I’m very familiar. And, Kimberly Cartier who was on the weekly space hang out was part of the larger team that helped discover it and do analysis of it. And so, we had somebody on our team that we were able to talk about it all the time and make a lot of never-ending mega structures jokes, much to Kimberly’s horror. And, I think that was part of the situation was with Tabby’s Star, yeah. It was probably dust. But, the virality –

Dr. Gay:                      There was promise.

Fraser:                         – of the story had gotten out that it was maybe, that it could be a mega structure. There could be some kind of alien mega structure, something we’ve never seen. And, it really captured the imagination of people. And so, when it was time to try and find some funding, there was enough already mind share out there that people were willing to sign up and help raise funds. And then, they raised hundreds of thousands? I don’t exactly how much they raised. But, they raised enough to do their study.

Dr. Gay:                      And, this was an amazing example of what is possible when you can capture the public’s attention and say, “There is no way I can get federal funds fast enough. There is this awesome possibility. Will you help me explore this?” It doesn’t end with just the scientific discoveries. There was projects put forward by the Planetary Society to test spacecraft. They were crowdfunding spacecraft.

Fraser:                         Right. The solar sail spacecraft?

Dr. Gay:                      That was the solar sail. Yeah.

Fraser:                         Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So, talk about that. So, I mean, with Tabby’s Star, it was a fairly standard Kickstarter kind of arrangement. How did the Planetary Society feel about it?

Dr. Gay:                      So, the planetary Society partnered with the – pardon me if I accidentally screw up this number. I know you will correct me. They partnered with the B612 Foundation. Was that correct?

Fraser:                         Yep.

Dr. Gay:                      Okay. They partnered with the B612 Foundation, and together, they looked to crowdfund money. I don’t remember particularly if they went through Kickstarter and they had everything channeled through the website seamlessly. And, they said, “This is our goal. If we do this, we’re going to put a Sunjammer solar sail not attached to a yacht up in space that you will be able to potentially see with your eyes as we explore the potential of this new technology.” Once again, it was a story that people wanted to see played out. And, it’s often that story that matters so much.

Fraser:                         And, LightSail 2 is flying right now.

Dr. Gay:                      And, we saw XCOR work to crowdfund through more traditional means the development of their space plane. And, over and over, planetary resources did the same. We have seen companies come out and say, “We want to do something amazing. NASA’s not gonna throw us a bone. Can you throw us some help?

Fraser:                         And, there been a bunch of others that have blended that that have not worked. There was the Mars One group that were trying to do crowdfunding to send colonists to Mars. As you said, there were planetary resources and various mining companies have gone out of business. There were plans to build satellites that would put a little picture of yours in front of the satellite to do a selfie with the earth. So, I think so far – and, both of us are in this field quite a bit. There are a few examples where it has worked. Tabby’s Star is probably the best one. You worked on a project with Alan Stern.

Dr. Gay:                      Uwingu. Yes.

Fraser:                         Uwingu. Yeah. Yeah, to work on XO planet naming, and that came pretty well out of the gate but had trouble going beyond a certain point.

Dr. Gay:                      Right.

Fraser:                         Are we too early, do you think?

Dr. Gay:                      I don’t think we’re as much too early as scientists aren’t always taught how to tell a good story. And, we are so used to approaching the billionaire investors – actually, we’re not. We are occasionally used to approaching the billionaire investors. We are sometimes able to sit down and talk to the foundations. But most of the time, we’re sitting down across the table from someone at the National Science Foundation at NASA, and we’re saying, “Okay. What are the things that you’re looking to fund right now? What can I do to help make my proposal better and more competitive next time?” And, we’re taking we learned, leveraging it into the traditional 20-page paper we put together of facts, and figures, and words, and graphs, and references.

I had a reference section that was eight pages long once for a 20-page document. But, that’s not how you talk to the public. They want a story. They want to feel a part of what you’re doing. And, it is one thing to say whatever fact it is that most interests you. We haven’t discovered more than 96% of the largest asteroid class out there. There are still dinosaur killers waiting to hit us. If I just say “96%,” you’re like, “That’s most of them.” But, as soon as I put in the context of “there’s still dinosaur killers out there waiting to hit us,” now you care.

Fraser:                         Right. Right. It’s selling the story. But, it is kind of interesting to me, and I think that’s part of the problem as well is that maybe only the best stories will be able to raise the funds, but not necessarily the best science or the best scientists. Like, to be the kind of person who can tell a compelling story is not necessarily the same person who can do some really amazing science.

Dr. Gay:                      And, it’s worse than that. You have to be someone who tells a really good story and also has the personal network to reach out and say, “Hey, can you help me publicize all the things I’m doing?” Like, me reaching out to you, reaching out to one now media to all the other people. I have to admit, as we’re doing this, I’m like, “Oh, no. I should have reached out to Stephen and I forgot to.” And so, it’s through reaching out to all of these people that we have in our Rolodex – not that those are a real thing anymore – all of the people that we have in our contacts list on our cellphone. You have to have a story, you have to have connections, and…

Fraser:                         But, I mean, you definitely have to have connections, but I guess there are people who are very good who have a lot of connections who are very slick at telling stories. But, they aren’t necessarily doing good science.

Dr. Gay:                      Right.

Fraser:                         So, that’s my concern is if you’re reliant on the person who is doing the science to also be good at telling the story, that’s a very rare individual. I only know of a couple of people who are both great scientists and great storytellers at the same time, and a lot of people who are mediocre scientists and great storytellers, and people who are great scientists and terrible storytellers. So, you kind of need that disaggregation, and that’s what these existing gatekeepers are for. So, how do we get to a place where we’ve got no gatekeepers, where the best science can reach the imagination of the most people who are willing to fund some of these projects?

Dr. Gay:                      Well, do you invest much money in Kickstarters?

Fraser:                         No.

Dr. Gay:                      And so, I think where we have to take a moment and step back is to say, “Okay. There’s all these Kickstarters out there, all sorts of different things. Some of them are gonna be amazing. Some of them are gonna be trash. Some of them…” There is a great-looking keyboard. They already have prototypes ready. They had testers. I spent my $99 to get this amazing ergonomic keyboard in 2007. Never delivered.

Fraser:                         Yeah. Kickstarters are mostly sort of a faith – I mean, it’s entertainment. Kickstarters are entertainment. You’re not there to get a product. You’re there to cheer on people who are gonna try something bold, you hope. We definitely learned that over the last decade. I think with science though, that’s no longer an issue. No one is necessarily expecting you to deliver alien life.

Dr. Gay:                      No. Hopefully.

Fraser:                         They want you to try. And, I think that, for example, I find that a lot of people who support the work that we do on Patreon, they don’t want anything in return. They don’t want to have a meeting with us. They don’t wanna have a signed autograph. They don’t wanna have any of that stuff. They just want to know that we’re able to do the work that we’re doing and continue doing it and benefit humanity in our way. And it feels like with science, it’s more like that. In theory, that top reason why people want support the work that people do, you’ve totally disconnected the outcome, the reward. The prize. Just support the discovery.

Dr. Gay:                      And, this is where I think with crowdfunding people will say, “Okay. There’s this up-and-coming company that is creating something that looks pretty awesome. I’m not sure because they’re new. Let me just throw – well, what’s the lowest reward level that gets me a chance to get something cool?” I know I did that with Hyper and their dongle for the iPad a number of years ago. And –

Fraser:                         Have you bought a lot of Kickstarter?

Dr. Gay:                      I have bought a lot of Kickstarters.

Fraser:                         Yeah, all right.

Dr. Gay:                      And, this goes back to my belief that if you’re going to be part of a community, you need to be part of the community. If I’m gonna be here asking people to support me through Patreon, I need to be out there supporting the things I care about on patron. Do I listen to Escape Pod on the regular? Yes. Do I support Escape Artists? Yes.

Fraser:                         Yeah. Yeah, yeah, same for me. I mean, I actually put a lot of money into Patreon, which I find is a better bang for my book than, say, Kickstarter.

Dr. Gay:                      Well, and I agree there by and large. But, there are things that I’m willing to say, “This is a company that’s put out these two or three products already. They’ve proven themselves. So, I’m gonna see if this upgrade to the really cool phone mount for bicycles that they have created, I’m gonna see if this new one that happens to match my new bike is as awesome as they say and throw money at this potential.” And, yeah, there’s been a few times where I’ve been really sad over the years where I’ve been waiting for something that I was promised before Christmas and it came the following spring. Bobox, I’m looking at you. You just have to sometimes trust and give people the chance to show their true colors.

Fraser:                         It’s interesting, like, on the journalism side, that is starting to get figured out. There is a Substack, for example, where people are doing paid newsletters. And, for a lot of journalists, the amount they make from that Substack is pretty significant. And, I wonder like, say, you’re making $10,000 a month as a scientist through your Substack. I’m not even sure what that would look like, but, you’d be making money month, after month, after month.

Dr. Gay:                      So, $10,000 a month at the lowest Substack $5, that means you have 50,000 people reading your newsletter. That’s –

Fraser:                         No. Oh. Well, hold on. Like, so you’re making –

Dr. Gay:                      $10,000 a month.

Fraser:                         And, they’re paying five bucks apiece. Right?

Dr. Gay:                      I did the math backwards. I did the math backwards.

Fraser:                         Yeah.

Dr. Gay:                      So, $10,000 a month, that is –

Fraser:                         2,000 people.

Dr. Gay:                      Yeah. Yeah.

Fraser:                         Yeah, that’s a lot.

Dr. Gay:                      I was awake a lot of hours. I really am a PhD researcher.

Fraser:                         So, 2000 people with the idea of the 1,000 true fans, 2,000 true fans. And so, say you’re making $10,000 a month as a scientist. Now, that’s a lot to be making as a scientist. But, you’re also paying for your research, you’re paying to do publication. You’re paying for journal fees. You’re paying grad students.

Dr. Gay:                      Health insurance.

Fraser:                         Health insurance. You’re paying for a facility. But, can you get 2,000 people who are excited enough about the work that you’re doing to pay your way month, after month, after month as you continue to do research and continue to publish papers? I think there is.

Dr. Gay:                      Yeah. I now want to move our newsletter to Substack. I won’t. I won’t. We give our newsletters away for free.

Fraser:                         I mean, I give my newsletter away for free. I mean, I’ve got about 50,000 people on it. But, I don’t know what would happen if I moved it to Substack. Probably less.

Dr. Gay:                      Yeah. Yeah.

Fraser:                         But, it is interesting. So, I think I’ve been very frustrated that this idea of crowdfunding hasn’t worked for scientists yet, that it feels like it should really be there, but you’ve got tons of people who love to watch documentaries on YouTube about space and astronomy. That you’ve got people that what cosmos, people who are totally into science fiction, like, scientific discoveries, this huge through line in our culture. And then on the other hand, you’ve got scientists that are starving for funding to be able to do the kinds of work that the enthusiasts would love to see.

Dr. Gay:                      And, I think I actually understand part of the problem. Over the years, I’ve spoken with venture capitalists about what would it take to get funding for our projects. We’re running CosmoQuest on $200,000 a year. That is less than the yearly salary of your average IT worker who actually can rent an apartment in San Francisco.

Fraser:                         I know what they want.

Dr. Gay:                      And, what they want is a business model that shows how you’re going to become profitable in the long run and no longer require their help.

Fraser:                         Well, they want an exit.

Dr. Gay:                      Oh, they want an exit. Yes.

Fraser:                         They want to invest in you, give you a million dollars, and they want to turn that million dollars at a good shot of turning into a hundred million dollars. And, that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work and my field – I mean, maybe. Maybe. I see lots of other news publications get picked up and then flipped and then turned around and people are making millions of dollars. But, I can’t imagine how it would work in the science world. You know, you’ve got a scientist.

Dr. Gay:                      It doesn’t. And, this is where you have to look historically at what are the ways science has been funded? And, there’s basically three models throughout all of history. One is you’re born rich. That’s really the easiest way to go. I love that model. And, I’m not gonna lie. The fact that I’m in a two-income household with zero children has given me the freedom to say, “Well, this year, I didn’t get enough grant money. So, I’m gonna be part-time because I really want to be a scientist.” In addition to the “born wealthy” route, which really is the best route should you be lucky enough to have it or some other way of – lottery. The lottery. These are the things we talked about. Beyond that, there’s two other mechanisms.

One has been federal governments over the years. Even Columbus was paid by a government. Admittedly, it was Queen Isabella. But, beyond governments funding science for the betterment of their own national security, there is often then the rich gentleman, gentlewomen at times, but not as often, who have said, “I kind of like what you’re doing. Let me fund you.” There’s some amazing things out there like the MacArthur grants that are considered genius grants where one day, you just get a phone call and you found out your funding problems are solved at least in the shortest of terms. These programs, again, require you though to be well known. You can’t be working quietly isolation and receive money from one of these gentle people willing to fund scholarship.

Fraser:                         I mean, we haven’t talked about them, but, there are – plenty of people have addressed this as a need. There are crowdfunding platforms. There are the Kickstarters of science that you can find.

Dr. Gay:                      Which are oddly not as successful as actual Kickstarter.

Fraser:                         No. No. No. And, this is sort of where I’m going back to is I think it hasn’t been figured out yet. No one has cracked the code. No one has solved this yet. And yet, the need is big on both the need for new discoveries and innovation that comes from outside of the mainstream, but also from the need for the scientists, these people who are getting these degrees, they’re preparing themselves for a career in science. And yet, there are no opportunities. So, they have to spin their wheels or go into the corporate field of whatever.

Dr. Gay:                      And, there’s one other factor to this that we have to acknowledge, and that is the factor of bias. It is extremely well documented that people who are not White men have a significantly lower chance of receiving advancement, receiving funding. We also have extremely well documented that people who aren’t at the top most universities, even though they may have identical access to the resources they need, don’t receive the same amount of funding. There is a clique system of where you are and who you are that helps decide what your possibilities are. And, there’s also the problem of what’s called the second shift.

This is where during the pandemic, we have seen so many women having to leave the workforce in part or in whole because daycares for children and elders have been shut down and someone has to pick up the job of taking care of the people who need it and providing the homeschooling. And, there’s still an uneven distribution of chores within the home. And, I’m so proud to have worked with you and Phil Plait who both were people who stayed home with your children. But, as much as I adore you for everything that you did, you are not the norm, which is part of why I adore you. And so, all of these things factor in.

Fraser:                         So, we’re sort of reaching the end of our time, although this is sort of like a rambling conversation that we could talk about this for hours.

Dr. Gay:                      It’s true.

Fraser:                         But, let’s imagine something happens, some successful crowdfunding appears and someone cracks the code on this. What do you think it would look like to say, “Okay. People are starting to understand. Maybe we’ve got a new way of doing things.” What do you think it would look like?

Dr. Gay:                      So, I think in part, you have to have a bit of anonymization of who it is that’s getting funded to remove the cult of personality that can occur. But, you also need commentary. And, this is something you and I have talked about before where you need peer review. But, it doesn’t have to be the formal journal system. And, this is where we’re starting to see various platforms that allow you to upload your research papers and get feedback from the community. I would love to see a place that allowed people to post their research ideas, what they’re seeking funding for, have known individuals providing critiques so that you know you can trust the people providing the critiques, and then invite the world in to say, “Well, let’s give money to the things we believe.”

And perhaps, everyone pitches in a bit of money and just like school elections used to be, you drop your marble in the jar of the thing you believe in. But, at the end of the day, there can only be one winner, or maybe five winners out of 50 applications. And, it does become something of a popularity contest. But, it’s another route. And at the end of the day, that’s what we need is more ways to fund science in this world for the funding for sciences being held flat as inflation increases the cost of everything around it.

Fraser:                         I think it’s just a cultural norm. I think that we just the way people will buy expensive trucks, the way people will buy furniture for their homes, whatever, that I think that we need to get to a place where culturally, we are willing to pay money directly to donate money to science programs and for scientists to be able to fund the work that they do from that route. And, I think if we can get enough examples of that, we should be quite successful. And, I feel like just the desegregation of everything, the lack of gatekeepers now, the rise of crowdfunding platforms, the ability for people, or at least in my field, in journalism to just be able to make a living from doing their reporting without necessarily needing to be under a big masthead, we’re gonna get there. We’re gonna get there. I don’t think we’re that far away.

Dr. Gay:                      And, I look forward to that day. And, we are here with Astronomy Cast. Thanks to the generous contributions over on Patreon, patreon.com/astronomycast. And you have your Patreon for Universe Today. And, I love the fact that you have so many fewer ads now. And then, we’re here with CosmoQuest X. And, we all work together. I have gone to you more than once and said, “Hey, I have this amazing person. I’m short on funding. Can you pick them up?” And you’ve done the same. And, it is a community where we work to keep everyone going, to keep everyone employed, and keep the science flowing. And, I really couldn’t ask for a better collaborator to spend – well, half my adult life with.

Fraser:                         And we couldn’t do it without the hundreds and hundreds of people who donate. So, I guess we’re the example of this working.

Dr. Gay:                      It is true. We really are.

Fraser:                         All right. Thanks, Pamela.

Dr. Gay:                      Thank you, Fraser.

Fraser:                         We’ll see you back to our regular schedule next week, I hope.

Dr. Gay:                      All right. Bye-bye, Fraser.

Female Speaker:         Astronomy Cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy Cast is released under a Creative Commons attribution license. So, love it, share it, and remix it, but please, credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website, astronomycast.com. This episode was brought to you thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep the show going, please consider joining our community@patreon.com/astronomycast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast.

Back to Top

Follow along and learn more: