Can Scientists Make It Alone?

Euny Hong profiles pharmacologist Ethan Perlstein, who tired of taking postdoc positions and is now crowd-funding his own research:

In September 2012, Perlstein decided to start a meth lab for mice to find out where radioactive amphetamines accumulate in mouse brain cells. He launched a crowdfunding campaign on the site Rockethub, a kind of Kickstarter for science for academic projects. The tag line, “Crowdfund my meth lab, yo,” was accompanied by a photo from Breaking Bad, about a teacher who runs a meth lab. The goal: to raise $25,000. … It is a safe bet that some of his former peers thought the move populist or unbecoming of an academic, particularly with the Breaking Bad allusions. But it worked: He raised $25,460 from over 400 people.

Perlstein expects more researchers to break outside the confines of the university:

The independent scientist movement is not a fad, said Perlstein, as long as problems for scientists in academia continue. “There are too many people rising up in the pyramid scheme of academia to be absorbed by positions,” he said. “Independent science is a safety valve that allows the pressure building from all this excess human capital. The independent path could absorb them, but that’s not going to edify academia. They will keep charging along as if nothing ever happened.”

But Jay Ulfelder wonders if the money will actually materialize outside of academia, particularly for social scientists:

As someone who’s managed to make a good living for the past two and a half years as an independent scholar—or freelance researcher or consultant or whatever the heck it is that I do—I want this to be true. Honestly, though, I think it’s still very, very hard to survive professionally without a regular paycheck and an institutional or corporate mooring, and the vast majority of people who try will fail.

Why? Let’s start with Perlstein’s story. His mouse meth-lab project raised about $25,000 on Kickstarter. Getting one $25K chunk of funding is great, but it’s hardly going to make your year. For that, you’re going to need to string together at least a few projects of that size or larger (remember, that funding also has to cover research expenses). Each of those projects will require a proposal or crowdfunding campaign, and those things take a lot of unpaid time to put together. Most projects won’t have a Breaking Bad hook, and many attempts to inject that kind of playful tone and pop-cultural relevance into your marketing campaign will fall terribly flat.