Tina Thurburn: Crowd funding science research

With dollars for scientific research becoming harder and harder to get, many scientists are now turning to crowd funding as an option. Is this for everyone though and what do you need to know?

Today’s guest blog by Tina Thorburn has some answers but also poses many important questions.

You can read more from Tina about crowd funding here

Crowd funding is a bold and innovative means to acquire funding for scientific research. Guest blogger Tina Thulborn shares her recipe for success.

For years crowd funding has allowed musicians and artists to tap into the pockets of strangers. Through an exchange of promotion, sharing and ultimately pledging money, the average Joe can contribute to the pivotal exhibit of an emerging artist or a budding musician’s first album. More recently, scientists have added themselves to this list of successful crowd funders.

A year ago, a handful of Australian researchers at Deakin University reached out to the public to generate funds and awareness about their research. And fortunately for science, and Australia, they were successful.

But is crowd funding for everyone? After speaking to a handful of Australia’s first successful crowd funders in science research, I am pleased to report that like most things, there is a recipe for success.

List of key ingredients:

  • Research project idea
  • Marketing plan
  • Passion and enthusiasm
  • Hard work

Research project idea

As a researcher, you are in the privileged position of fully understanding your area of science, and the research questions you aim to address. However, it may be uncomfortable to comprehend, but your next-door neighbour, postman or mother-in-law, probably doesn’t know or even care about your line of research. Obviously, this is a huge overstatement, but my point is: when deciding on the research project idea, think outside of what you find engaging and critical to science, and go with a project that has pizazz and relevance to anyone and everyone.

There are examples of Pozible science research campaigns that have failed to include this crucial ingredient. Without it these projects have not been successful in raising funds. Remember, you are not selling your research project to an ASRC panel, but to the general public. But how do you get people reaching for their wallets?

Focus on the adjective that best summarises your research idea. If you have a research project idea that has contemporary relevance or implications for groups in society, then you have a ‘sexy’ research idea. Alternatively, you may have a conservation question that puts a cute animal at the centre of your ‘cuddly’ research idea. Whatever the adjective that best expresses your research project, ensure it not only encompasses your research, but is evocative.

Marketing plan

We no longer live in a world where having a good idea is enough. In an age where Facebook and Twitter are the norm, marketing plans and promotion are integral to the success of any crowd funding campaign.

Although some advocates have criticized crowd funding as a popularity contest, it seems that it doesn’t matter how many friends you have on Facebook, or how many followers on Twitter, but rather how you tap into the connections and networks you do have.

The marketing plan is closely linked to the last two key ingredients.

Passion and enthusiasm

There is no need to change your lab coat for pom poms, but it is essential that you are the biggest fan of your research idea. All the researchers I interviewed carried such enthusiasm in their voices, facial expressions and body language when talking to me about their Pozible campaigns. It was contagious.

Obviously, as a researcher you have dedicated much of your life and academic career to your area of science, but what is critical here, is for your passion to be easily gauged, and accessible to those that come across your crowd funding campaign. However, Australian culture dictates that garish attempts at self-promotion can sometimes be met with criticism. Unfortunately, that cannot be helped. Some of the researchers I interviewed shared with me that at times this was testing, but their fervour overcame the judgement of others, and in the end they succeeded.

Passion and enthusiasm are often well contained, but for a fruitful crowd funding campaign, these need to be tangible and sincere.

Hard work

If only it took a dash of marketing, a sprinkle of passion and a heaped teaspoon of a good research idea. Like many things a successful crowd funded science research project takes hard work.

All the scientists I spoke to worked tirelessly. Some focused on getting their research idea out to the groups that would be most affected; others were resolute in getting their research out into the realms of the general public. From the conception of the Pozible campaign, to the final donation, these successful researchers explored every avenue of communication and collaboration.

Some have said that this energy could be better put toward actually doing their research. However, I challenge that notion with a round of applause. These researchers are doing the commendable, and once unheard of action, of getting their science research into the public sphere. By engaging with their neighbours, postmen and mothers-in-law, these researchers have created a conversation that will continue as they continue to pursue their research questions.

Overall, crowd funding science research is a bold and innovative means to acquire funding. The pitfalls of popularity and the tall poppy syndrome await any scientist who chooses to go down this funding path. But in exchange, researchers get the rare opportunity to communicate and share with the public what they themselves dedicate their lives to: good science.


Three Martins, one frog

Happy New Year everyone, I hope you’ve all had a wonderful break with friends and family.

As I fly over the breathtaking Rocky Mountains and depart California bound for Colorado, following a wonderful conference about predator-prey interactions (more on that soon!), what better time for a post?

Biodiversity means many things to many people. And beyond the functional and ecological importance of species, many of us share a deep and emotional connection with this planet’s organisms. EO Wilson’s famous Biophilia hypothesis elegantly summarises this relationship and is certainly well worth the read. But the fact that we are now losing so many of Earth’s species as a result of our impacts means that these connections are being severed at an alarming rate and we are all the poorer for it. Some may argue, but on a personal level nature brings meaning to life and this is why I’m doing what I do. Importantly, it’s not my intention to solely paint a picture of doom and gloom, there is much to celebrate still. As the following personal account by Angus (my father-in-law), Jen (my wife) and Rohan (my son) illustrates, there is enormous power and joy that comes from maintaining our connection to nature.

Three Martins, one frog

Angus: After a life-time of frog research, in 1986 I joined the honoured group of scientists who have had a newly-recognised animal species named after them. “My” species is a Victorian member of a widespread group of small Australian frogs called toadlets (they look like, but aren’t really, tiny toads). Meet Martin’s Toadlet, Uperoleia martini (pronounced, please note, mar-tin-eye, not mar-tee-nee.)

Uperoleia martini, Martin's Toadlet, is a very special frog.
Uperoleia martini, Martin’s Toadlet, is a very special frog.

Jen: I can clearly remember even as a primary school student thinking it extraordinary that my Dad had a species of frog named after him. It is something I have always been immensely proud of! I think it was at some point during my own undergraduate zoology days that I asked Dad more about it and discovered that he may never have actually met “his” frog. I resolved at the time to do something about that but amidst a PhD, academic job, marriage and having children, I never got around to acting on my idea.

Close to 20 years later, it took the death of a very close family friend in late 2013 for me to realise that time is precious and I needed to put my vague plan into action. I started making enquiries, and found out that the frog is now of great conservation concern — it had disappeared from a number of previously reliable monitoring sites. It was clear that if we were going to find one, we needed to do it soon.

Three Martins, one frog.
Three Martins, one frog.

Angus: I hadn’t been aware of Jen’s feelings about Martin’s Toadlet, though I should have been, given that we have collaborated in lots of zoological work; that her husband Euan is also a zoologist and that their son Rohan, nearly six, gives every evidence of being a zoologist in the making, too. I was absolutely enchanted by her idea that we could share in a unique family moment of discovery — and fulfilment — if the three generations of Martins could together find, catch, celebrate and release a Martin’s Toadlet.

And that’s exactly what we achieved, on 18 December 2013. Jen realised that we’d need expert help to find a population of the species, and it was willingly provided by Nick, leader of the threatened fauna program in the state environmental research institute, and another Rohan, an ecologist resident in eastern Victoria. We met in the late afternoon at a spot nominated by Rohan the Elder: an old, well-vegetated fire-dam on a rough dirt track in a beautiful stretch of forest, a little under three hours drive from Melbourne. And there we waited while dusk slowly closed in: five people, ranging in age from a little under 6 to a little over 73, united by their enthusiasm, their respect for each other and for their surroundings and their sense of fellowship in pursuit of a shared goal.

Is that a frog call? — yes, but not the one we want — what about that one? — still no, but better get the headlamps ready — that’s four different calls we’ve heard now — wait! — five! – that’s the one! — very quiet, everyone — triangulate on the sound — I reckon I know where he is — I’VE GOT HIM! — can I hold him? — of course, very gently — cameras! — phones! — photos! — more photos! — enough? — OK, time to let him go — return him to the exact same spot — high fives! — bye-bye Toadlet.

Forming and maintaining connections.
Forming and maintaining connections.

Rohan (the Younger): That’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.

(And perhaps he was speaking for all of us).

Uperoleia martini: As we packed up for the journey home, the little frog began to call again.


Preparing for PNG (and other news)

I’ve been a bit quiet of late on account of preparations for my upcoming trip to Papua New Guinea (PNG). So it’s high time for an update on what’s been going on. My journey to PNG is the result of my first foray into crowd-funding, and I’m really looking forward to putting everyone’s generous support into action. Thank you again everyone, the response was overwhelming!

Torricelli Mountain Range
I’m packing for Papua New Guinea! Image credit: Into The Jungle.

The project is a collaboration with the Tenkile Conservation Alliance. To find out more about the TCA’s amazing work, please visit their website . You won’t be disappointed, this is what grass roots conservation should look like and, more importantly, achieve. So back to the trip, what are we doing anyway? We will place 36 cameras out along an elevation gradient from 500 to 1500 metres above sea level, in order to survey for some of the world’s rarest, most endangered, but little-studied mammal species. In particular we’re targeting Tenkile, Weimang and Yongi (Grizzled) tree kangaroos. It’s a trip full of excitement that will generate substantial new data on the biodiversity of the region, and we even expect to find a new species or two! We’ll retrieve our cameras in a few months time, at which point we’ll get the images back and the secrets of the Torricelli Mountain’s forests will begin to be revealed. It’s worse than waiting for Christmas, believe me! Anyway, you’ll also be able to follow our exploits on The Conversation.

In news of the canid variety, a new book (which I contributed to) on the ecology of dogs and wildlife conservation has just been published. This is an important text, given the ubiquitous distribution of dogs around the world and the renewed interest in the ecological roles of predators. Despite dogs being the world’s most abundant carnivore (an estimated 700 million to 1 billion worldwide), we know surprisingly little about them, so this book is timely.

And what am I doing this very minute? Well, I’m on a plane headed back home to Melbourne from Sydney, after being at the Royal Zoological Society of NSW’s Dangerous Ideas in Zoology forum. It was a great day with lots of thought provoking ideas being proposed by some of Australia’s most prominent ecologists and in some cases, finest exponents of science communication. Many scientists could do a much better job on that latter point though! So what were some of the juicier, more interesting points being made? Well, you can get a pretty good idea by jumping on Twitter and searching for #zoodanger.

But here are a few of my highlights:

  • Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook suggested if we want to maintain our energy demands and lifestyles, but still also conserve biodiversity, we must have nuclear power in Australia’s energy mix. Did you know a smart phone has the same energy budget as a fridge? I didn’t. And, a golf ball-sized chunk of uranium will power a person’s lifetime energy requirements, but for coal, they’d need the equivalent of 800 elephant’s worth! Staggering and hard to argue with when put like that.
  • Ian Wallis showed everyone, most notably Mike Archer, that vegetarians certainly do not have more blood on their hands than omnivores. But, the type of meat omnivores consume is most important, not just the amount. Increased pork and chicken consumption are most to blame for impacts on the environment, as the production of these animals requires large inputs in the form of crops for feed. Take home message: if you want to eat meat, eat grass-fed (e.g. beef, or even better, roo) but limit your overall meat consumption too.
  • Yours truly (along with Corey Bradshaw) proposed we tear down the dingo barrier fence and implement different approaches for predator management and pest control, including the use of guardian animals. Why? Well, many of our reasons are stated here, but mostly because more fences, poison and bullets will not solve our pest management issues and conserve biodiversity long-term, in fact it could make things worse. What many people still fail to realise or acknowledge is that species don’t operate in isolation from others within ecosystems. So why do we continue to manage species as if they do? Related with this theme, that of species and the importance of their interactions, there’s some very exciting news coming out in this Tuesday’s The Conversation. Can’t say anymore at this stage 😉

Oh and I nearly forgot to mention that there was a talk that featured bunyips (including an ‘actual’ skull that looked remarkably like a wombat’s), black panthers and other mythical creatures. I’m not joking!

Last but not least, along with Zoos Victoria, I will be hosting the 2014 Australian Mammal Society meeting, 7–10 July 2014, at the Melbourne Zoo. Put it in your diaries now! Tim Flannery and John Woinarski are already confirmed as plenaries, and there will be a lot more to come yet…

That’s all for now until I return from PNG in a couple of weeks.

All the best, Euan.


Australian Mammal Society Conference 2013

I’m about to take a well-earned break with my family and visit my old stomping ground of North Queensland, a biodiversity paradise. It’ll be great to reacquaint myself with all of its wonderful inhabitants and of course, some old friends of the human variety! But before we disappear, I’d like to give a short report on the Australian Mammal Society meeting in Sydney, that I attended these last few days. To find out more about the society itself, please see the AMS website.

To start with, this year’s meeting was one of the best I’ve been to, and its organisers are to be commended. I’ve been to a few over the years! My first was way back in 2002. This year’s meeting also held extra significance for me personally, as I met my wife, Dr Jenny Martin at the Sydney meeting 10 years ago to the day. She was working on possums in Victoria at the time and me kangaroos in northern Australia, but that’s a story for another day…

There was a wonderful diversity of talks this year from a project that aims to record mammal vocalisations, to Scottish Beaver restoration (no sniggering, people) , wildlife surveys in war-ravaged Cambodia and Buddhist Bhutan, and predators of all shapes and sizes, including issuing spotted-tailed quolls with ‘passports’ by using their distinctive dotted markings. Dr Matt Crowther delivered an important talk about dingoes and their morphology. We are still without a proper description of what a dingo really is, until now (Matt and his colleagues’ paper is coming!). Until this issue is resolved the appropriate management of dingoes and ‘wild dogs’ will remain clouded. My PhD student Sarah Maclagan also reminded us of the importance of novel habitats, showing how dependent the endangered southern brown bandicoot is to modification of drain networks it lives in and around in peri-urban Melbourne. Me personally, I stayed away from controversial topics and presented a talk on why the dingo barrier fence fails the triple bottom line test. More on that later too!

It was a wonderful meeting and made all the more pleasing by the fact my table won the legendary limerick award (members of the society will appreciate the ‘honour’ associated with this), with a ditty inspired by the Bhutan camera trapping talk by Assoc. Prof. Vernes:

There was a man named Vernes
Who presented his work with finesse
What Google can do
With pics from the zoo
Vernes, it’s time to confess

Once again the student talks were among the best, and it’s great to see such a wonderful bunch of passionate and capable scientists and communicators for the future. Along these lines though, actual numbers of students at the meeting were down and we’d really like to remedy this, so if you’re keen to be part of a society focused on the ecology, conservation and management of mammals, please sign up. Biodiversity needs YOU!

Talk soon, with tales of North Queensland…

Research Uncategorized

Fully funded on Pozible!

I’m thrilled to announce that we have reached our $20,000 funding target on Pozible, a little over 48 hours ahead of deadline.

A huge thank you to everyone who supported the project, helped to spread the word, or made a donation — large or small.


We will now be able to begin our project: the first comprehensive camera trapping study of animals in the spectacular and remote Torricelli Mountain range in Papua New Guinea. We will build on the already amazing work of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance (TCA) and strengthen the alliance’s partnership with Deakin University.

This is something tangible we can do to help arrest the extinction crisis. Engendering hope is critical.

It has been wonderful to see science and conservation capturing the public’s imagination. I really hope the crowd funding model continues to increase the connection between the public and the scientific communities.

My first foray in to crowd funding has been exhilarating, humbling and exhausting… all at once!

One more thing: if you haven’t pledged but would like to help out, there is still time. More dollars means more cameras, which means more data. Or, if you would like to help out my Deakin colleagues, there are still 5 exciting projects that need support.

Again, on behalf of myself and the TCA, a huge thank you. We are very, very excited to get cameras out and start discovering just what’s out there!