Crowdfunding Astronomy Research

This is a guest post from Travis Metcalfe, astronomer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and former chair of the AAS Employment Committee. In 2008, with a grant from Google, he established the Pale Blue Dot project, a non-profit adopt-a-star program that funds an international collaboration supporting the Kepler mission.

Motivated by a perfect storm of research funding disasters, I recently started a crowdfunding project through the “Kickstarter for nerds” website The goal is to raise $25,000 in the next 90 days to support the computational resources and time required to determine the absolute sizes of some of the best exoplanet candidates discovered by the Kepler mission to date. Through pledges to a tax-exempt non-profit organization ranging from $10 to $1000, with specific “rewards” for each donation, the project will fill a critical hole in the funding for this analysis.

You’ve probably heard of crowdsourcing, with programs like Planet Hunters harnessing the power of thousands of citizen scientists to discover transiting planets from Kepler public data that were missed by pattern recognition algorithms. Crowdfunding takes citizen science to the next level—using social media to attract small donations from thousands of enthusiastic benefactors to fund science that may require resources on a smaller scale or shorter timescale than a traditional grant-funded project. Where do you think SETI got the funding to continue operating the Allen Telescope Array?

Some old school astronomers—those who remember a time when tenure at a university or federal lab actually meant something, or when top-ranked proposals for promising science projects were generally funded—are offended by the notion of funding science through an adopt-a-star program. I don’t live in their universe. In my world, science funding considers itself lucky to be flat in an era of government austerity. Crowdfunding may still be in its infancy, but it’s here to stay.

Getting started with a crowdfunding project is easy. Think about the types of activities that lend themselves to direct sponsorship, and consider the rewards you can offer to your sponsors—maybe you can fund your next trip to the observatory by producing a photo blog or video diary of the journey? Take your first step at While you’re there, check out our project and use the discussion below to tell us what we can do to improve it.

8 comments… add one
  • Nick Howes Feb 22, 2012 @ 9:18

    For projects that just require computational power, could not the distributive processing (SETI etc ) be a better solution than crowdfunding?

  • C Feb 22, 2012 @ 22:30

    I don’t do computation, but the people I know who do tell me that getting supercomputer time isn’t hard (not appreciably oversubscribed, so way easier than getting telescope time). They tell me that getting the funding for theory work, however, is hard.

  • Kyle Willett Feb 23, 2012 @ 0:23

    This is an interesting idea, and maybe one that’s completed a historical cycle from when European astronomers sought out patronage to fund their research. Hope your project is successful, Travis.

  • John Feb 23, 2012 @ 16:18

    Your main/first FundaGeek link is broken.

  • August Muench Feb 27, 2012 @ 15:13

    See also:

    Help us find the first exomoon

    a more kickstarter like beta platform. what is weird is that they want the same thing — computing power to process kepler data. go figure.

  • Jan Yamada Mar 12, 2012 @ 14:03

    Travis, your project on FundaGeek is an excellent demonstration about how funding of basic research is taking a turn. I think all scientists know how hyper-competitive the traditional grant process has become, not to mention time-consuming. Crowdfunding with a resource like FundaGeek is a great way to go. I wish you much success!

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