Friday, July 18, 2008

Funding Research with PayPal

In doing my research for my scientific blog yesterday, I ran across the following quote on the Paleobiology Database (PBDB): "The Paleobiology Database's core facility is funded by charitable contributions"

I'm not sure what the story is with that. They also mention that they were originally funded by NSF, but since the "core facilities" apparently include the database coordinator, software manager, and database programmer, I can only assume that they need considerable "charitable donations" to maintain the database itself and support the data collection activities.

This highlights one of the problems with the formation of the digital databases that I think the scientific field has yet to grapple with: digital databases, unlike the old-school data compilation books, need constant upkeep, maintenance, and software upgrades to remain useful. Funding agencies invest money in the initial concept and creation, but should funding agencies agree to fund these projects indefinitely? On the other hand, how useful is it to gather the data into a database that exists for a few years and then decays away? What seems necessary is an alternative, source of support that these resources transition to. But what should that be? One option is to require fees to use the data. While I can understand the necessity of such a step, the scientist in me cringes at the pay-for-data model. Another option is to create an alliance with an institution who commits to basic maintenance of the resource....a federal agency, museums, university, conservation group, etc, whose mission coincides with the focus of the digital database. But is there another option? The Barack Obama option? I have to admit I so enjoyed the PBDB Science (see yesterday's posting) paper and was so appalled that the PBDB didn't have funding that I looked around for a PayPal button to donate a few bucks to them.

While I am only slightly serious about the Barack Obama model of presidential election funding being an option for scientific research in general, I have to admit to some curiosity of what would need to be done to make it work. Obviously, we would need to reach out beyond the our immediate scientific community. Sorry, guys, but if I have enough meaningful spare cash to invest in someone's research, it's going to mine or perhaps extreme charity cases where I think the research is really really important and a crime against humanity to let it die. And perhaps that's the rub, convincing a lot of people who know/understand little about what you are doing and why it is important/cool/interesting enough to spare a few dollars. In my field, at least, I think conservation research might do pretty well that way, but basic scientists like myself may be out of luck. On the other hand, have I mentioned lately how my research is going to save the world......?

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