Vote for the research you want

05 Sep 2006 | News
A pay-per-vote Web site offers a new way to fund science, one dollar at a time.

Mark Flowers, founder of a new Web site that aims to fund research.

Mark Flowers, a physics major at Florida State University, watched with amazement as millions of people voted for their favourite singer on the hit US television show American Idol. While the viewers did call a toll-free phone line, they still had to pay cell phone and text-messaging usage fees.

Being a budding scientist, the university senior came up with an idea: if people were willing to vote for singers, why not for worthy science projects?

"If only the people would vote for research topics with the same enthusiasm, things like the energy crisis could easily be solved," said Flowers, 26, who is using his own savings to fund the new Web site

"Our scientists should be doing science, not searching and applying for grants that they may never receive."

The idea is simple. Ordinary people throughout the world pay $1 to vote for their favourite science topics on the Web site. The average visitor so far to the site has spent $5. Money is handled through the secure Paypal system.

Eighteen months of voting

For the initial round of topics, Flowers came up with more than 40 topics including cancer, AIDS, and global warming. After 18 months of voting and fund raising ending December 2007, the total topics will be narrowed down to five, and a panel of researchers will decide which projects within those topics will be funded. Researchers will be able to apply for the money through what Flowers describes as a simple application.

Currently the leading topics, in no particular order, are the common cold, schizophrenia, understanding dreams, Addison’s disease (chronic adrenal insufficiency) and understand self image.

Those who voted for topics that lost will have their money applied to the closest related topic. Site visitors can vote as many times as they wish. After the first 18 months, the cycle will continue in 12-month intervals. Site visitors also can submit additional topics they would like to see listed on the site.

Of the money coming in, 50 per cent will go to fund the top five topics, 25 percent will be invested in real estate and other outside investments and the profits reinvested into the research funding, and 25 per cent will go to advertising and administrative costs.

For those who might question how they can be sure their money will go to the scientists, Flowers said that the site specifically states that US federal law prohibits the use of the money for anything other than its promised use.

Researchers who win awards from the Web site must agree to spend two hours a week in an on-line chat.

Half a million for research?

Flowers figures that if one million people vote, that would bring in $500,000 to yield five, $100,000 grants. "People feel self-fulfilled to vote for a winner," he said of the motivation for people to pay to vote.

While there is no Web site exactly like that of Flowers, a similar concept called DonorsChoose raises money for projects at public schools across the United States.

So can a nascent, grassroots Web site gain traction in the complex world of scientific grants?

Simon Capstick, PhD and associate professor of computational theoretical nuclear physics at Florida State, is optimistic. He said the pay-per-vote idea was not likely to come from an established researcher working within the existing system, but from an undergraduate like Flowers.

"It is possible this could fund research that would fall through the cracks otherwise," said Capstick, who Flowers asked for advice and feedback on the Web site. "The first question is whether the scale [of donations] will be large enough to get things done. And he needs to get scientists from various areas to ensure there is quality control on the projects that will be advertised on the Web site." He added that a large amount of advertising will be necessary to get the concept off the ground.

Flowers remains hopeful despite the challenges ahead for his project. “I started this website because I hope to change our world for the better and I believe allowing the public to chose what gets researched and help fund it, is the way for that to occur.”

"This could help change the world. I want better things for our grandchildren," he said.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up