About two years ago, one of my friends mentioned Catarse, a new Brazilian crowdfunding platform that lets people raise money for creative projects. Later that week, my supervisor Professor Mauro Rebelo, who has a long history within science communication, coincidentally told me he thought crowdfunding might be an interesting way to fund our research — investigating the genetics of a bivalve commonly known as Golden Mussel (Limnoperna fortunei). Crowdfunding PhD research? What a bizarre idea. But I thought, “Why not?”
Here’s the problem we are trying to solve:
The Golden Mussel came to South America from Asia in ballast water on ships 20 years ago. Today, the invasive species has spread to an area of more than 120,000 miles, from the southernmost part of South America, Buenos Aires, through the central part of South America, the wetlands of Pantanal.
The mussel is also classified by ecologists as an ecosystem engineer. This means it physically alters the places it invades, and not always for the betterment of the environment. In South America, it’s been reproducing at such rates that it has been clogging and damaging industrial pipelines, costing facilities millions of dollars every year. Additionally, irreparable damage is being done to the natural water bodies of South America: it kills biodiversity by homogenizing river and lake ecosystems, and ends up occupying the ecological niche of other species.
Our solution: I’m sequencing the Golden Mussel’s genome in search of a gene that will allow us to eradicate it with biotechnological means. Why is this so important? If this destructive species reaches the Amazon River basin, it threatens one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, one that is intricately linked to the well-being of all humankind. We cannot allow that to happen.
So what does that have to do with crowdsourcing?
Well, it’s not exactly easy or straightforward to convince the general public to give me money for my PhD research by talking about genome sequencing for a mussel. And plenty of people who are concerned about the environment don’t have a clear understanding — or are suspicious — of genetic research. But saving the Amazon — everyone can get behind that. So it became the central theme of our crowdfunding campaign. Our job was to relate the genome sequencing to the high stakes of saving this crucial ecosystem.
What nailed it for us? We created an easy-to-understand, animated video, and it turned out to be a huge hit. In 5 minutes, the video contextualizes the Golden Mussel situation in South America and explains why we need to better understand the biology of this bivalve. We told the story in a simple, funny and cute way.
This was a lot harder than it sounds. Professor Mauro wrote the first version of the video script, and when we edited it, I struggled like crazy to keep it under 5 minutes and easy to understand — leaving behind so many details of the science, which is precious to me, in order to get to the clear message. You see, to make a judgment about any piece of research, a scientist needs all the details. But the public, at least in this case, doesn’t — all those details would only serve to make people lose interest.
Through this experience, I learned that my job isn’t just to do the hard work of the science, but to inspire passion in the rest of the world. And to inspire, the best thing is to keep things simple, concise and interesting — and the audience will want to know more. After our video went viral, hundreds of people wrote to us asking follow-up questions, while another thousand shared the crowdfunding link. And it worked! In the end, 361 people gave $20,000 to fund our research.
Another secret to our crowdfunding success was the rewards we offered — especially using donors’ personal names in genes described in the genome, e.g., Marcelina ribonuclease. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once wrote, “The prospect of getting something named after oneself is strong motivation; an amateur astronomer discovering a bright comet means the world will be forced to identify it with his/her name. A well-known example is Comet Halley, which needs no further introduction.”
So here’s the thing: there are thousands of good scientific ideas without funding out there. If this worked for us, then maybe it can work for other researchers.
This is a radical idea. In our highly specialized world, in which not even scientists can communicate among themselves if they are working in slightly different fields, we can’t expect everyday people to easily and clearly understand our scientific ideas and give value to them right away. If more researchers were to put themselves out there to enroll people in the excitement of what they’re doing, not only would more research get done faster, but people would get invested in science in a way they never have, learning a lot in the process.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned through this experience, it’s that actually, everybody wants to participate in science. That’s a very good thing, and it’s crucial that we give people the opportunity. We have more than 8 billion humans on this planet consuming its resources, making a huge impact, destroying biodiversity at a never-before-seen rate. The decisions we make in the next few decades, individually and as a group, will define the fate of this planet and of humanity. The more of us are engaged with science, the more we can make informed decisions about how to live daily life — what to consume, how to vote and, yes, whose research to support. Knowledge has to go crowd.
Work has to go crowd: together we are stronger.