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Is Crowdfunding the New Way to Pay for Important Scientific Studies?

June 18, 2014
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Is Crowdfunding the New Way to Pay for Important Scientific Studies?
Gas and oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. David McNew/Getty Images
Grants for non-biased fracking studies are scarce, so scientists take matters into their own hands.

Even if you don’t know much about fracking (the process through which oil and gas companies pump water, sand, and chemicals into the ground to release oil or natural gas), you probably know that, politically-speaking, it’s a controversial topic.

Many people who live close to fracking operations fear that the process or its byproducts could harm them or the environment. But because of its polarizing nature, it’s difficult to land funding for non-biased scientific research on fracking.

Studies funded by industry groups have (of course) found no potential harm to humans from the practice. Citizens of several Colorado towns are skeptical, however, and have passed bans on fracking within their communities’ borders that may or may not hold up in court.

Nelson Harvey writes for High Country News that “the government’s own research on fracking is coming under fire from both sides of the political spectrum,” with the EPA recently responding to criticism by backing away from results of a 2011 study that found fracking to be the cause of the pollution of an aquifer in Wyoming. The state of Wyoming will continue the study, but it will now be funded by EnCana, the oil company responsible for fracking in the area.

Outside of industry-sponsored research, there’s little funding available to study fracking as federal grants for such studies have been slashed. So this year, at least four scientists have turned to crowdfunding to finance their research.

Dr. Susan Nagel of the University of Missouri is currently seeking to raise $25,000 through Experiment.com for her study: “Does fracking contaminate water with hormone disrupting chemicals?” She’s already gained $19,000 in backing, so apparently many people have the same question.

Harvey notes that, so far this year, University of Washington researchers successfully raised $12,000 through Experiment.com to study fracking’s effects on air pollution in Utah and scientists from Juniata College collected $10,000 through crowdfunding to research fracking’s impacts on streams in Pennsylvania. However, one fracking study proposed by a University of Colorado biologist failed to garner the necessary backers.

When a combination of budget cuts and political pressure makes it hard to study a certain topic, perhaps seeking donations from the questioning public is the best way to find answers to some of science’s most pressing questions.

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