Roo Vandegrift studies fungi. He recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon and, like hundreds of other scientists, he is in need of money to fund his research.
Scientists usually apply for federal grants, but in Vandegrift’s case, he created a Kickstarter campaign for his research on fungi and climate change in Central America.
Vandegrift says there has been an increase in the number of researchers and, according to the National Science Foundation, federal funding for scientific research has declined. Researchers have to compete for grants with funds generally going to the “sexier,” more transformative sciences with greater impact, like the medical sciences.
When scientists receive grants, Vandegrift says, the universities usually take a percentage of the money to help keep facilities and programs running. By using a crowdfunding source, Vandegrift says he hopes to demonstrate how important basic sciences are, such as taxonomy, which involves classifying plants and animals based on their similarities.
“The alpha taxonomists are nearing retirement, or nearing death,” Vandegrift says, “and there’s nobody to replace them because there hasn’t been money to train replacements.”
Vandegrift’s goal is to create a book that helps identify various species of Xylaria, wood decay fungi, commonly known as “Dead Man’s Fingers.” According to his Kickstarter, “these are some of the most common wood decay fungi in the tropics, which makes them very important to global carbon cycling, and thus climate change.”
Crowdfunding for scientific research has not been very successful traditionally since the rewards are more societal and not individual. “Taxonomy might be unique,” Vandegrift says. “Because of the graphic nature of taxonomy, and because of the tangible outputs of taxonomic research, I think it has the potential to be the exception to the rule.”
Taxonomic research generally includes multiple graphics and pictures documenting the various species within a genus. “Graphics projects do really well with crowdfunding because people like pretty pictures,” Vandegrift notes. Thus, the rewards for pledges to his Kickstarter include items with varying images of Xylaria.
“We’re not saying donate to help science,” Vandegrift says. “We’re saying buy something that you might have wanted anyway and help science … We’re using the strength of the art to support the strength of the science.”
If this crowdfunding project succeeds, Vandegrift says he hopes it will send a message to the federal agencies creating scientific grants of the importance of funding basic sciences.
“If it can work for this project,” Vandegrift says, “it could be a model for other researchers working on other groups of organisms.”
So far, Vandegrift has raised $4,716 of his $67,000 goal, with a deadline of July 23. Find Vandegrift’s Kickstarter at kickstarter.com/projects/werdnus/xylaria-of-the-cloud-forests-of-ecuador.