It’s no secret that science funding rates are, in a word, abysmal*. As a pre-tenure faculty member, this has been weighing heavily on my mind, and I’ve devoted a substantial portion of my year to grant writing (fingers crossed!). There’s a running joke that you typically get funded to do the work you did already, and in a way, it’s true; “preliminary” data is an important component of a strong grant proposal.
But how do you get that data? There’s a critical gap in opportunities to fund promising, early-stage, and potentially risky work. This becomes especially true when you’ve got graduate students, like I do, that came with their own funding (in my case, an IGERT student and a university fellowship). They’re not on a grant, which means while they’re funded, their research projects are not.
The solution, according to some, is crowd-funding science. Think Kickstarter, but for research. Websites like Experiment.com are cropping up to take advantage of the funding gap, providing opportunities to raise money for pilot analyses, small projects, or to fill gaps left by 6% funding rates and long turnaround times for proposals.
Two of my graduate students, Dulcinea Groff and Kit Hamley, have put together an Experiment.com project page to raise $10,000, which is half the cost of our upcoming trip to the Falkland Islands. We’re pursuing several projects on the paleoecology and conservation of this important biodiversity hotspot in the South Atlantic.
Dulcinea is interested in the terrestrial-marine linkage between seabirds like penguins and the native tussac grasses that make up their habitat on land. The link? Poop, of course (this is me we’re talking about, so you know that feces are involved in some sense or other). These grasses have been heavily grazed by sheep, which form an important part of the Falklands economy. The Falklands are a low-productivity island (there haven’t been trees for at least a couple million years!), which means that the nutrient inputs from guano are a big boost to the plants. We’re especially interested in how sensitive this linkage is to abrupt climate change, so we’re going to investigate the last 20,000 years of environmental change on the islands.
Since the last ice age, the Falklands have seen a lot of upheaval, from changing climates to the arrival of the enigmatic Falkland Islands wolf, or “warrah,” which was the first canid to go extinct in the modern era. There’s a debate about when the warrah arrived in the Falklands and how it got there– and, especially, whether pre-European humans played a role. And, once it did establish, how did so many seabirds coexist with a this new native predator?
The warrah was extinct by the 1870’s, hunted to protect the sheep that are now a ubiquitous sight on the main islands. These sheep have in turn done a number on the native tussac grasses, which are important habitat for the penguins, shearwaters, marine mammals, and other wildlife. Meanwhile, there are major questions about the role of fire on the islands — is it natural? How does it effect that plants (and grazing fodder quality?)? Does fire provide a clue about human arrival?
So, how do we disentangle all of these interacting effects? With cores, of course! The peat records on the island contain important clues to the last 20,000 years of environmental changes: abrupt climate change, vegetation changes (recorded by pollen), fire (recorded by charcoal), penguin and other seabird populations (indicated by chemical signatures from guano), the arrival of sheep (recorded by the dung fungus spores I’ve worked with in the past), and potentially human arrival (depending on what the charcoal record tells us). We’ll also be investigating fossils; Kit will especially be looking at the warrah remains that have been found by native Falklanders in the past.
As you can imagine, starting a research project in a totally new part of the world is a challenge, and funding it is even more challenging. I’m pursuing traditional funding sources through the National Science Foundation, National Geographic, and other venues, but none of these are certain. Meanwhile, my students have wicked cool research to do, and we’re on a limited timeline for other reasons: global change. The peat records that we want to collect are eroding due to sea level rise and grazing. Meanwhile, offshore oil drilling is set to start soon in the Falklands, and the baseline data we can provide will be important in assessing the risk of all these global changes to the biodiversity — and the economy– of the Falklands.
As Americans, we’re very keen to make sure that the work we do is valuable to local stakeholders. We’re working closely with the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute, the Falklands government, and Falklands Conservation to provide useful data on things like the role of fire, the vulnerability of seabirds to abrupt climate change, and the impacts of sheep grazing on the native plants. The integrated ecologies and economies– seabirds, fisheries, and sheep grazing — are an important part of what makes these islands so special, and we’re hopeful that our work will inform the long-term sustainability of each.
You’ll be hearing more about these projects in coming weeks, with guest posts from Dulcinea and Kit about their research. In the meantime, check out their project page. I’m curious to see whether this whole crowd-funding thing will work. $10,000 is an ambitious goal, but it supports two students– we didn’t want to pit them against one another, so we combined them into one. We’re 22% funded with 30 days left to meet our goal (on Experiment, if you don’t meet your funding goal, you don’t get anything). I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll make it, though this experience has already got me thinking about how viable crowd-funding will be in the long-term future. I’ll follow up with a post on that one the process is complete. For now, I encourage you to check out our page, share with your friends and colleagues, and make a contribution. You’re not only supporting some really fantastic science that, we hope, will have direct benefits to the local biodiversity and economy, but you’re investing in the next generation of conservation scientists, too! Wish us luck.
*I just remembered that I’m posting this on Election Day here in the United States. Remember to vote if you can! Science and education funding depend on you!