I know physics research may seem like an unusual thing to “crowdfund” but I met Mark Jackson, the founder of Fiat Physica back in September, and really thought he was on to something. In a world where so much is becoming more democratic and “horizontally” organized via the Interwebs (c.f. the now more well-known term of “consensus process” from the last few years) vs. hierarchical, why shouldn’t citizens be able to directly fund physics research and outreach projects if they want to? I think the whole idea is pretty cool and really hope it takes off. I am heartened to see some of the projects already forging forward, as Mark describes below, as well as also already being backed by some household names in the astronomy world.
So, I’m going to let Mark “guestblog” here and am posting here something he sent me directly describing the launch of FP, and what it’s all about:
Crowdfunding astronomy through Fiat Physica
Recent years have witnessed two revolutions in approaches to scientific research: crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Crowdsourcing, in which many participants use the internet to contribute bits of content toward a larger goal, has allowed problems of previously insurmountable scale to be efficiently analyzed and solved. Astronomy has been at the forefront of this “citizen science” approach: Galaxy Zoo invited the public to classify galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which then led to the Zooniverse – a collection of citizen science projects in all areas of science and even humanities, currently boasting over one million members.
A related concept, crowdfunding, is simply crowdsourcing applied to fundraising. Rather than expect a single patron to donate the full amount of a budgetary goal, modest donations are made by many individuals. Such contributions are rewarded with “perks” ranging from high-resolution digital photographs to personal interaction with the research team, and at the highest levels even co-authorship and endowments. Crowdfunding platforms have proven tremendously successful, but there was not yet one specialized to astronomy –and it’s difficult to find such projects in the generic “anything goes” platforms.
Fiat Physica is the first crowdfunding platform specifically for physics and astronomy. Our motto – “Make Physics Happen” – is what we do, connecting physics enthusiasts to research groups seeking support for projects that will shape the future of humankind. The budget crisis has affected all areas of sciences but has been particularly harsh to physics and astronomy. In 2004 the observing program for the Hubble Space Telescope was nearly cancelled until public outcry ensured its continuing operation. In 2011 the James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch a few years from now, with billions of dollars of cost already sunk into the project, faced a similar potential fate. While again the project was saved in significant part due to support from the public and scientists, the cost of its salvation is likely to be major cuts in future missions.
In our initial outlay of campaigns, Fiat Physica has already begun representing several highly diverse active physics and astronomy outreach and research projects. One is Telescopes to Tanzania. Building upon their previous crowdfunding success to create a Center for Science Education and Observatory, they are now seeking to train additional astronomy ambassadors – each ambassador will then train dozens of students, who in turn can train others. Another is working with the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) , which conducts rigorous scientific exploration into some of the most profound questions imaginable. These questions could include the nature of space, time and reality itself; investigations into black holes, wormholes and parallel dimensions. Along somewhat similar but more traditional lines is the work we are doing with The Lagrange Institute of Paris, which is a center of learning on the cutting edge of astroparticle research: they were directly involved in the recent mapping of the first light from the Big Bang. Finally I will mention Mountains of Stars, an astronomy and nature education outreach program through the Appalachian Mountain Club and Carthage Institute of Astronomy, aiming to train enough volunteers to reach 10,000 participants this year.
We provide campaign management and optimization, the white glove service of crowdfunding. To provide a destination where enthusiasts can engage with space concepts in an accessible, relevant, and enjoyable manner, we have a blog where we post articles that tie abstract concepts to concrete, everyday examples. We also sponsor monthly social gatherings in New York City to discuss astronomy in a relaxed environment. This is complemented by our very interactive social media profiles for the space-enthusiast community to keep abreast of the latest developments in the field.
The academic community has been solidly behind this enterprise, with many colleagues offering their help to improve the funding situation. Some of these serve on our Advisory Board: Neil Turok, Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, who used his $100,000 TED Prize to launch the Next Einstein Initiative; Sandya Narayanswami, previously Director of Foundation Relations at Caltech; and Rocky Kolb, Dean of the Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago.
This is a tremendously exciting time in the astronomy community, and the public can now directly participate. We are looking forward to interacting with the entire physics and astrophysics communities through our website and social media. We are building and seeking relationships with foundations and companies who support fundamental physics research and education. The future of physics can no longer be determined behind lab doors and at private galas. We have built the missing link between the scientific community and the public.