MU professor experiments with crowd funding to finance research

Monday, August 25, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:47 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 26, 2014

COLUMBIA — MU scientist Susan Nagel had already found that groundwater near drilling sites where fracking was used had elevated levels of hormone-disrupting chemicals. Her research, published in the online peer-review journal Endocrinology,  cited other research linking these chemicals to birth defects and infertility.

The next step was to identify specific hormone disruptors in the water, develop methods to measure these chemicals in human urine and blood, and identify potential health trends associated with the chemicals used in fracking — a process that injects fluids into the ground under pressure to fracture rock and extract oil and natural gas.

Nagel, an associate professor at MU School of Medicine, turned to crowd funding to continue her research after deciding she couldn't afford the time-consuming process of waiting for federal grants.

She used a website dedicated to scientific research, Experiment. Denny Luan, co-founder of Experiment, said the site has funded more than 150 projects and has raised nearly $1 million.

Nagel raised her goal of $25,000 on June 28, three months after creating the campaign, from 133 people around the world. She said a $7,500 grant from MU, which she applied for early January, took around six months to arrive.

One contributor was Caitlin Johnson, a support technician for the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Johnson first heard about the project through a Facebook page dedicated to Gasland, a documentary that investigated the environmental fallout of fracking. She funded the project because of issues brought up by the film.

"Funding a scientific research study seems like a good use of my limited funds, in terms of contributing to an effort that has a chance of making a difference," Johnson said.

Nagel said she applied for government funding from the National Institute of Health in October 2013 and did not receive it. She applied again in July 2014 and will find out the results in February.

"Crowd funding allowed us to continue the project during this time, which is very important," she said.

Although crowd funding was a way to continue the fracking research while waiting for more funding, Nagel said she is not enthusiastic about using it in the future.

"I'm very pleased with the results," she said, "but it was a huge amount of work that didn't have a lot to do with science."

Nagel said even with help from the marketing department at MU, she spent around two hours a day driving traffic to her fundraiser, and it took on average 40 page views to get just one donation. She said she thinks that more people will try to use crowd funding, and as more people start to use it, the process will become more streamlined.

David Beversdorf, an associate professor for psychological sciences at MU, is also using crowd funding through Fundly. His focus is on how brain chemistry affects autism. His goal on the website is $50,000.

Beversdorf said he turned to crowd funding due to the exploratory nature of his research and because it would be too difficult to build the amount of supporting evidence that is required for grant funding.

"So far, we have raised several hundred dollars," Beversdorf said. "We are planning to spread the campaign farther and hope to do much better."

According to an article on, named "Crowdfunding: Tapping the right source," the idea of crowd funding came from the broader term crowdsourcing — using the crowd to collect ideas, feedback, and solutions to problems. Crowd funding refers specifically to collecting money.

According to, a business crowd-funding platform, the first recorded successful crowd funding was in 1997 when a British rock band reached out to fans online to fund their reunion tour. The first crowd funding platform, ArtistShare, was created in 2000, the website said.

An article by Dawn Cadogan, a social sciences librarian at University of Connecticut Libraries, lists two "research only" crowd funding websites and four "general" websites with research sections. Other schools, including the University of Virginia and the University of California, have their own crowd funding sites.

MU spokesman Christian Basi said the application process for federal grants has taken more time in recent years due to new disclosure requirements and training for conflicts of interest. The number of proposals submitted has also increased, he said.

Basi said the amount of money received also appears to have lowered in recent years. He said there was a dramatic increase in funds in fiscal 2009-2010 due to an economic stimulus package that has since been phased out.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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Mark Foecking August 25, 2014 | 8:28 a.m.

"She funded the project because of issues brought up by the film. (Gasland)"

Gasland is a very poorly done film as far as fact checking and science.

There's a fine difference between enthusiastic science and activism. I think Dr. Nagel knows the difference, but I suspect many of her crowdfunders do not. My suspicion is that many of the endocrine disruptors found in the Endocrinology study will turn out to be either be of natural origin or will be associated with people (birth control medication) and feedlots, and this will be a huge disappointment to the anti-fracking crowd.

When the group I was with came to Columbia (Celso and Elise Gomez-Sanchez), we used an adrenalectomized rat kidney cytosol to screen for mineralocorticoid activity. This assay worked fine in Florida, but here it never worked, as though there was some xenomineralocorticoid that was saturating the rat's receptors. We never found what it was, but it wasn't the food or water.


(Report Comment)
Mike Martin August 25, 2014 | 3:26 p.m.

"With help from the marketing department at MU" -- and those of us who reported on this project when it was still just an experiment:

MIZZOU SCIENTIST: Uses crowdfunding to support fracking research March 26, 2014

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