At what cost?

So, I've entered a new era. Two of them, in fact. The first: I'm broke, as a scientist. My lab is open, we are collecting (inexpensive) data, we will keep getting papers out. But with very little room for error in budgeting. The second: I've posted my first attempt at "crowdfunding" on We will see how this goes, as much as anything I'm interested here in juggling my complicated feelings about trying this avenue for supporting my research.

First, what am I asking to fund? About $3000 in additional RNA sequencing for a project in Pisaster that I think will be really of broad interest and will open up our understanding of sea star wasting disease and general responses to pathogens in marine deuterostomes. If you want more of a defense, I encourage you of course to go to the project site at linked above.


Why don't I pay for that myself? Darwin paid for all of his work, right? Well, yes. And I make a good salary. I find this to be a slippery slope problem: if I just admit to not being able to support my work via traditional funding mechanisms, I can pay for some things myself, but with potential costs that exceed their value to my family, and with a potential loss of objectivity that writing proposals, and getting them funded, requires.

We as scientists can't just do whatever we want, in general. We'd like to be doing what will serve our fellow humans and our planet, and to do so effectively means that I won't be plunking down my own money just to know the microbial composition of (for example) soil on a mountain bike trail versus soil that has been undisturbed. Even if it ties together my scientific skills with trail riding, it is such a marginal increase in knowledge (I think) that I recognize that to be folly.

So I am trying this platform in part to find out whether one can appeal to the public and learn about the interest in an idea. The problem of course, is that now - 2017 - everybody I know is stressed by current politics, worried about their financial futures, and already giving money to organizations like the ACLU to help protect those affected by new policies of the new POTUS. So I'm not sure that I will get this funded - and that's OK - but I'm also not sure I will heed that answer.

The other concern with paying for things myself is that it leads to questions of relative merit. If I paid for project X from my own pocket, why won't I pay for project Y? Will I pay for my friend's project, or my student's?

Now, I pay for my smartphone - which is used daily in work-related tasks. I pay for my travel to some conferences, like the Western Society of Naturalists meeting last November. That is not only tax-deductible, it is also an expense I'm willing to bear because it maintains my being part of the science community. My marine science community. So why not pay for polymerase?

I'm not saying I won't some day. There would be freedom in that, to the extent that my family is comfortable with modest expenses. But of course it also gains no traction with colleagues for whom a federal grant, however elusive, is the only currency that can unlock promotion (or perhaps respect). So it is not a good strategy to rely on.

Things are very different from Darwin's day. And his buddies probably privately mocked his barnacle collection. He knew why he was doing it, and that passion and drive is of course one reason many of us are scientists - we really just want the answers to some things. At what cost?