Crowd-Funded Mathematics

What if your research was funded by 100 strangers who had read your research proposal online and clicked “donate”? You’d feel responsible to write about your research in a more widely accessible way. You might pledge to provide monthly updates to your patrons in lieu of sending them a physical object. Or maybe high-paying donors could receive a 3-D printed physical representation, a piece of software, or access to an application online. While mathematics may not be winning any popularity contests amidst the general populous, scientific research is still appreciated enough by the general public that researchers are currently using sites like https://experiment.com/. This site is particularly tailored to funding science research just as sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are tailored to help start-up businesses. I was first drawn to this idea when I noticed several mathematics education projects seeking funds through crowd funding:

  1. Gary Antonick at the New York Times Numberplay blog recently featured Primo, a mathematical game designed by Dan Finkel, who blogs at Math For Love. The game is based off of thinking of prime factors as corresponding to different colors, allowing even younger children to play the game and learn basic operations as well as logical strategies for controlling their two pawns.
  2. Similarly, the Moebius Noodles blog is hosting a crowdfunding campaign for Camp Logic, a book that introduces older children to logic via games and puzzles. You can preview the book for free, which is written by Mark Saul and Sian Zelbo from the Courant Institute’s Center for Mathematical Talent.

Seeing the success enjoyed by these campaigns so far made me think about how this could be a partial solution to the problems discussed by Cathy O’Neil at Mathbabe concerning the declining number of research projects funded by government funds. One example of a research project involving mathematics that seems to have engaged many individuals enough to garner their dollars is OpenWorm. This is a project that aims to create a digital worm from scratch by using scientists’ knowledge of the molecular structures within the worm. The idea would be that in the future, some research on an animal could be conducted by simply “downloading” the animal. By programming low-level interactions within the worm, the project organizers have seen the movements that one might expect arise “organically”. Of course all of this modeling requires a ton of mathematics. The model is open source so that anyone can view the code using GitHub.

 

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16 Responses to Crowd-Funded Mathematics

  1. Jeremy Kun says:

    Do you really think mathematics research could be funded like this? I can’t imagine a Kickstarter-like video with someone describing their research for algebraic geometry would get much funding. The problem is that understanding what the project is about must be a prerequisite to funding it, for else how could you even begin to tell the difference between a real proposal and a scam?

    • Hamilton says:

      We’ve been posting project updates on our physics experiment daily rather than monthly in the form of my experimental log book. For example:
      http://copaseticflow.blogspot.com/2014/05/labbook-20140526-superconductor.html

      Jeremy makes a good point. I think the public would fund what they were interested in. I also would hope the public would learn some of the basics of checking the veracity of a proposal before jumping on board; things like employment of authors, previous publications of authors and so on. In the end, the same thing can be said of Congress, and to a lesser degree, the NSF and other funding agencies. It is a bit of conundrum.

  2. Paul-Olivier Dehaye says:

    I think it could work. It really depends on what the research is about. No one said you have to start with algebraic geometry…

  3. Tom Patterson says:

    Crowdfunding for mathematics and most other areas of science will never work. You see the amazing successes of art, music and film projects over on Kickstarter and Indiegogo and think you can do the same for science. Wrong. The reason these projects are a success is because the people involved are creative-types, extroverted, with a flare for design and huge social networks. The kind of project profile a mathematician is likely to create will be boring, technical, and uninspired in creative terms. It will not attract backers to any great degree. In addition, scientists have no idea what to offer as a reward, or how to promote the project in social media. Other cf sites have tried crowdfunding science and have failed. The other big problem is if the researcher works at a university, there is no process for accepting small amounts from individuals and direct them to a professor. Development departments at universities hate crowdfunding because it infringes on their area – fund raising.

    • Hamilton says:

      I think it would be awesome if creative mathematicians who had the ability to communicate ideas well were the ones who ended up getting funded. As far as a flair for design, or funding algebraic geometry for that matter, how about the pretty pictures they make, like the one on the Wikipedia page for AG: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e0/Togliatti_surface.png/600px-Togliatti_surface.png

      As for the disbursement of funds, the best bet might be to keep everything grass roots. Let the professor receive the funds directly. Sure, they can’t use them to pay their grad students salaries or health insurance benefits, but the cash would spend just fine for plane tickets to conferences.

      • Ursula says:

        I don’t find it at all difficult to sell people on the coolness of my algebraic geometry research. (There’s a connection to physics, and lots of people like speculating about the shape of the universe.) But most crowdfunding projects start with one’s friends and acquaintances, and I *would* find it hard to explain why my friends should buy me plane tickets.

        • Hamilton says:

          It would be tough for me too. On the other hand, I’m couch-surfing at a conference I’m attending this week because I couldn’t afford a hotel and I have friends in the San Francisco area. There’s a cool Amanda Palmer TED talk on the whole subject:
          http://www.ted.com/talks/amanda_palmer_the_art_of_asking

          I fell like it’s awkward to ask for things, but on the other hand, I know all of my friends and family really want me to succeed and most of them would love to help out in some small way if they could. It’s a conundrum.

          • Paul-Olivier Dehaye says:

            Crowdfunding is not begging, I would think. We should take a stand on regular funding for regular mathematics research. But some particulr projects might be well suited for crowdfunding, particularly if they are designed in this way from scratch.

  4. bfinegold says:

    I’m really enjoying the comments that are coming out of this! Thank you all for your responses!

    Just to be clear, I do think that crowd-funding is (as I wrote in the post) only one possible source of funding — a partial solution — not the sole answer to the very serious issue of maintaining funding for research in mathematics. I agree that the public would face challenges in discerning between valid research and bogus proposals. But perhaps machinery would evolve to handle these problems just as the peer review process has evolved over time. Also, I agree that only projects that the public can understand would be funded, so algebraic geometry would not be my first choice to market. Keep the comments coming — what other mechanisms can we use to maintain funding while avoiding being beholden to one person/company’s agenda?

    • Hamilton says:

      One mechanism to maintain funding is to contact your congressman. Apparently they’re voting on science funding today, the 28th of May. The American Physical Society got this out to all of us a bit late,(last night at 11 PM), but here’s how they say you can help:

      Urgent Member Alert:

      Contact Your Representative in the House to Voice Support for Increased Funding for NASA and NSF

      This week the House will be voting on H.R. 4660, the Fiscal Year 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) appropriations bill that provides funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), among other accounts. The House version of the CJS bill provides funding above both the President’s request and the proposed authorization levels for both NASA and NSF. Please contact your representative and ask him/her to 1) Vote for the proposed increased funding levels and 2) Vote against any amendments offered that will reduce such funding levels and/or impose restrictive policy provisions such as those contained in H.R. 4186, the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act.

      https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v1/url?u=http://go.aps.org/1kIdxHt&k=0X%2FFxm5D1bJULWw1K8t7gQ%3D%3D%0A&r=nVCk9sBhz6iS8SEU%2FOf2j6rjkr0zr1hz%2BUOEw2u3q0E%3D%0A&m=AketY9BjMs5r5%2BKdNGMoQQcnYqrczE9ZYi2fkIL%2B8rs%3D%0A&s=fb196284c31e18f31c29d62a05ac73ab2cc615e0c00a5bfccf50ae6cd3781d86

      The vote on both the bill and potential amendments is likely to happen Wednesday, May 28. Please contact your Representative on or before May 28th.

      Instructions on whom to contact and how to do so are provided below, along with sample communications.

      How to contact your Representative

      The APS Policy website has tools for you to both call and/or write your Representative. If you choose to send an e-mail communication, simply fill in your home address into the form under “Compose Your Own Message” and click “Write Legislators.”

      https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v1/url?u=http://www.congressweb.com/apspa&k=0X%2FFxm5D1bJULWw1K8t7gQ%3D%3D%0A&r=nVCk9sBhz6iS8SEU%2FOf2j6rjkr0zr1hz%2BUOEw2u3q0E%3D%0A&m=AketY9BjMs5r5%2BKdNGMoQQcnYqrczE9ZYi2fkIL%2B8rs%3D%0A&s=a3b7c6b6611092b1d11aca4945cac27f3ccdeb679f5cf780b3cce164d08e1738

      You will be taken to the next step of actually composing and sending the e-mail. Please uncheck the boxes for your Senators and for the President, as they will not be voting on this issue. Below you will find a sample e-mail template for your use.

      If you choose to make a phone call, simply fill in your home address into the form under “Find Your Elected Officials” at https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v1/url?u=http://www.congressweb.com/apspa&k=0X%2FFxm5D1bJULWw1K8t7gQ%3D%3D%0A&r=nVCk9sBhz6iS8SEU%2FOf2j6rjkr0zr1hz%2BUOEw2u3q0E%3D%0A&m=AketY9BjMs5r5%2BKdNGMoQQcnYqrczE9ZYi2fkIL%2B8rs%3D%0A&s=a3b7c6b6611092b1d11aca4945cac27f3ccdeb679f5cf780b3cce164d08e1738 and click “Go.” You will be brought to the next step where you can click on your Representative to bring up their office locations and phone numbers to call.

      Sample E-mail

      Dear Representative X,

      My name is [YOUR NAME], and I am a physicist from [City, State] and a constituent of [Rep. Congressperson]. I work at [Institution] in [City, State].

      I am writing to ask that you support the strong funding levels for science research at NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in H.R. 4660, the Fiscal Year 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Act and to reject any amendments that are antithetical to science. We face a difficult moment in history when it is important to both reduce the deficit and debt while also maintaining and growing our economy in the 21st-century. Economists all agree that, since the end of World War II, science and technology have been responsible for more than half of the United States GDP growth. In order to compete in knowledge and technology industries which promise future growth, we need to maintain robust federal support for scientific research.

      [Personalized story of how NASA/NSF support has made a positive impact in research for you, your colleagues, or others within the Congressional district].

      Thank you for your consideration.

      Sincerely,

      Sample Phone Call

      STAFFER: Hello, Congressman X office, how may I help you?
      YOU: Hi. I’d like to speak with the science staffer about the upcoming vote on H.R. 4660.
      STAFFER: Let me see if they are in currently. [You may get to speak with them, be asked if you can deliver your message to the staffer, or be asked to leave a voicemail.]

      Upon reaching the science staffer personally or leaving a voicemail.

      YOU: Hi, my name is [your name] and I’m a constituent of Congressman X. I am a physicist and I’m calling to urge to Congressman to support the strong funding levels for science research at NASA and the National Science Foundation in H.R. 4660, the Fiscal Year 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Act and to reject any amendments that are antithetical to science. We face a difficult moment in history when it is important to both reduce the deficit and debt while also maintaining and growing our economy in the 21st-century. Economists all agree that, since the end of World War II, science and technology have been responsible for more than half of the United States GDP growth. In order to compete in knowledge and technology industries which promise future growth, we need to maintain robust federal support for scientific research.

      Sincerely
      Michael Lubell,
      Director of Public Affairs
      American Physical Society

      ==========================================================
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  5. Paul Leopardi says:

    Thanks for your post. I think that one reason that there are very few crowd funding projects for mathematical research is that it is hard to drum up and sustain the interest of strangers, unless you can come up with something that is instantly engaging, like Vi Hart’s videos, or Veritasium.

    I have my own project on Pozible (“The Schroedinger experiment”) to fund my $20123 airfare to attend workshops that I have already been invited to, and even though I have put up unique computer generated artwork as rewards, it is still not gaining traction outside my immediate circle of friends.

    My talk at the first workshop in Vienna would be on random matrices on the unit sphere, by the way. Not something that generates a lot of interest and buzz, even amongst mathematicians. So I am framing the project with an emphahsis on giving my mathematical knowledge and enthusiasm back to the community when I return.

    Do you have any advice on how to get my project accress the line?

    • Paul-Olivier Dehaye says:

      Hi
      Very courageous of you! I can’t find your campaign on Pozible. I am hoping you got the price of the airfare wrong…
      My advice would be to really try to explain what it is that you are studying, in layman’s terms.
      Have you looked at Diaconis’ Gibbs lectures on random matrices? Some of that is a good way to make these matrices accessible to a wider audience.
      Given your research it should not be too hard to communicate some of the interest to a general audience. What about low-discrepancy sampling of points for CS applications, for instance computer graphics? You can certainly generate nice pictures with that.
      Would love to help. It’s certainly going to be hard for the first mathematicians who try it out, but I think our community will have to seriously consider this in the near future…
      Paul

      • Paul Leopardi says:

        The airfare quoted above was a typo. It should say $2023. My crowd funding project is at http://www.pozible.com/project/185825 and has now been fully funded! Hopefully you should be able to find it. Otherwise,go to www.pozible.com and seatch for “Vienna mathematics” (without the quotes).

        In any case, I will look at Persi Diaconis’ Gibbs lectures, because I am interested in random matrix theory as it applies to uniform distributions on compact manifolds. Thanks, Paul, for the tip.

        • Paul-Olivier Dehaye says:

          By the way, I was just reading this the other day:
          http://ec.europa.eu/research/consultations/science-2.0/consultation_en.htm
          The European Union is seriously considering crowdfunding of science.
          It also is seriously considering using altmetrics (ResearchGate, Academia.edu). This might be a blessing and a curse for mathematicians, I don’t know. Journal impact factors are inappropriate for us, mainly due to the 2 year window that they use. But at least for impact factors I can say why. This is not the case for closed algorithms.

        • Paul-Olivier Dehaye says:

          Congratulations on getting the funds. Make the most out of the trip!

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