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- Part II -

Important lessons (and new goals) from our efforts to embolden citizen scientists, explorers, and conservationists.

Six months ago, we started a small-scale experiment around the idea of “Funding Curiosity” — a new model for supporting science, exploration and conservation. Our thesis revolved around three important trends:

The cost of scientific tools are dropping
Of course, this is not true for every piece of scientific equipment. There are no low-cost particle colliders. But for tools used to percieve, monitor and sense the natural world, the costs of getting the job done have changed dramatically. The same trends that are putting powerful supercomputers (smartphones) in everyone’s pocket are also driving a reduction in remote sensing. Drones and GoPros are a part of this story, but by and large this is a result of the growing maker movement, which is giving everyone access to cheap computing, an array of sesnors, and rapid prototyping equipment. If the low-cost version of a tool hasn’t been built yet, someone will try soon. The growing trend of science-as-a-service — companies like Science Exchange, community biolabs, crowdsourcing, etc — is also a part of this story.

The changing faces of discovery
Since starting OpenROV three years ago, we’ve been continually blown away by the demographics of the community. It’s become obvious that the falling costs of science and exploration equipment is enabling a whole new genre of question-askers, and it’s far beyond the walls of academia. This is especially important and exciting for conservation and ecological monitoring.

The harsh reality of science funding (aka The Postdocalypse)
Regardless of your political affiliation, it’s hard to imagine the political climate being any more friendly towards science than this administration. Sequestration is here to stay and the situation could very likely get worse. Many individual philanthropists have stepped up, but a very small percentage are doing anything other than plugging holes — their models and approach are very similar to the NSF and NIH.

The first two factors — falling costs and new participants — are widening the range of experiments, expeditions and questions that could be pursued. Our strategy, as we outlined before, was to provide micro-sponsorships to worthy projects to further erase the boundary between questions and answers. With support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, we were able to send out the first batch of OpenROV kits as well as 3D Robotics drones to expeditions that met the requirements. Here’s what we learned:

A little bit goes a long way
From the perspective of a foundation or a sponsoring company, an individual micro-sponsorship is a relatively small commitment. So small, in fact, that it would be very hard for that same foundation to underwrite that amount as a one-off initiative. However, it’s not a small issue for the recipients. In fact, receiving one of these tools can be a catalyst for a whole new level of engagement and enthusiasm.

Collaboration is amplification
The best expeditions and explorers were also the ones who shared the most. There was a high correlation with a person’s willingness to ask for help and get others involved to the eventual success of their endeavor. A number of our favorite expeditions went above and beyond the call to get their communities — whether through schools or community groups — involved in the build and question-asking process.

Persistence trumps talent
Another characteristic of successful expeditions was their persistence. The initial question or plan often became irrelevant or was answered early on in the process. However, the groups that stayed with the process eventually ran into something interesting. Almost any question becomes interesting if you follow it long enough. With future micro-sponsorships, we will emphasize and reward persistence.

The bright stars of citizen science
One of the most exciting aspects of the pilot program has been finding some extraordinary local champions — citizen scientists whose work is wholly worth supporting. Take Laura James for example. After recieving an OpenROV for her work on Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, she has since started a half dozen more expeditions, including two more conservation projects and one involving the help of a local high school. That’s exactly the type of “accidental ecologist” that we are aiming to empower.

Overall, we feel that our thesis was mostly correct. There is certainly an appetite for science, conservation and discovery that doesn’t fit within the NSF rubric. We expect (and hope!) this will increase as more people learn what’s possible. Empowering these explorers is the right thing to do. The bright stars become much brighter with better tools.

The big question: how can we scale this effort? We have some ideas. We’ll share more as we begin to roll out OpenExplorer 2.0.

At the tail end of his book Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand articulated this amateur-funding conundrum:

“Most innovation comes from amateurs, who are free to be radical, and from scientists in academia, who are free to follow their curiosity. But then there’s a gap. It’s hard to develop radical ideas into something broadly practical, because commercial money and government money are obliged to be conservative, and academic money is limited to discovery. The best money for pursuing really radical ideas into experimental use comes from individual philanthropists (foundations tend to avoid risk)… Will some of that prodigious lode of cash rise to the occasion of planetary urgency? It’s possible.”

It is possible. If you’re a foundation, company or individual that’s interested in building this future with us, please get in touch:

Entrepreneur and writer working at the intersection of science, conservation, and technology.

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