When the X-ray was invented, people clamored to get one. Not for any medical reason, but just to see what was typically hidden inside their bodies.
Something like that seems to be happening with DNA sequencing technology. First it was companies offering to sequence people's genomes. Now it's learning all about your microbiome, the collection of microorganisms living on and in your body.
Both are basic science projects aimed at understanding how microbiomes influence health. And in return for funding from individuals, both will provide donors with an analysis of the bacteria in their very own digestive track.
Using the Internet to crowd fund, the uBiome and American Gut projects have together raised more than $600,000.
Crowd funding, in case you're unfamiliar it, is accomplished by posting a project on a website like Kickstarter, setting a fundraising target, and asking people to donate.
Let's say you're an electronic band from New York, and you need money to make a new album — you could crowd fund. Or you have a bakery and you need some dough to buy a new oven — you could crowd fund.
Crowd funding for those kinds of projects has been going on for several years. Crowd funding for science, though, is fairly new.
Jessica Richman, one of the co-founders of uBiome, says she and her colleagues chose to crowd fund their project rather than use more traditional types of fundraising because they wanted to engage the public in the project.
"There's something magical that happens with crowd funding where you start getting 500 emails from people telling you, 'well, does it do this?' Or, 'what about that?' Or, 'why doesn't it do that?' And that really helps you refine what you're doing and understand better what people's questions and needs are," Richman says.
Before uBiome and American Gut, most of the scientists who've tried crowd funding haven't raised anything close to $250,000. Previous takes were closer to just $5,000.
"People say, you know, what can they do with $5,000? I'm an ecologist. You can do a lot of things for $5,000," says Jai Ranganathan. He's with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, and he also co-founded the SciFund Challenge, an effort to encourage scientists to crowd fund.
He says for an ecologist, $5,000 would pay for several months of field work. "Not all science is, you know, sending a rocket to Mars," Ranganathan says.
Critics of crowd funding worry that it will turn science into a popularity contest. They say, " 'Only the panda bear research is going to get funded. My very serious research will never get funded this way.' That's the worry," says Ranganathan. "And, in fact, it's dead wrong."
Even esoteric projects can raise money, Ranganathan says. "We had a microbiologist in New Zealand who was studying the evolution of E. coli in mouse guts. Wow, nothing very particularly sexy about that, but she was such a gifted communicator and [could explain] 'Hey, this is why it's exciting.' "
Ranganathan says scientists ought to get better at selling their science. "My goal is to change the culture of science to one where scientists are reaching out to the public," he says.
But some scientists need to be persuaded that reaching out to the public is a good thing. "Some do, and many do a fantastic job. But generally, do scientists reach out? No, they don't. We need a new argument. How about money? Money seems to be a good argument sometimes," he says.
The idea of being financially rewarded for being a good science communicator seems to me to be a worthy goal.