Mass Appeal: To Study Backward-Finned Dolphin, Researcher Sources Crowds for Cash

One scientist's quest to understand some funky fins taps a new crowdsourcing model to funding his project
backwards finned dolphin

Robert L. Pitman NOAA-NMFS-PRD

No, it's not photoshopped—that dolphin's fin really is on backward. It is a type of spinner dolphin that lives in the eastern tropical Pacific. The really peculiar thing about these cetaceans is that only the adult males have backward fins. The juveniles and females of the species look completely normal.

"We've known about these dolphins for 50 years," says Matt Leslie, a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, "but not a lot has been done to actually study why it's on backwards."

To figure out what's going on, Leslie wants to build models of these dolphins and put them into a flow tank. By looking at how the water moves over the models, researchers can study how the fin might affect the dolphins' swimming capabilities. Because the funky fin only occurs in adult males, the hunch is that it has to do with appealing to female preferences, rather than making the dolphin a more efficient swimmer.

But this research is only tangentially related to Leslie's PhD work, and it is not a question that big funding agencies are terribly interested in. So to get money for the CT scans he needs to build the models, Leslie has turned to a new funding source: crowds. His research project is one of 49 projects in the SciFund Challenge, an experiment in crowdsourcing for research funding.

SciFund is the brainchild of two researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who thought that crowdsourcing for science projects could help bridge the gap between scientists and the rest of the world. "My vision for the future is that every scientist has a public face, where they're updating people about their science and people can directly connect to it," co-founder Jai Ranganathan says. He hopes that if people can see and fund projects, they'll be more connected to the science.

To reach a bigger audience, SciFund has teamed up with RocketHub, a more general-topic crowdsourcing site that connects projects with people. RocketHub co-founder Brian Meece was initially skeptical of how well crowdsourcing would work for science, but since teaming up with SciFund he's seen several projects go well beyond their expected fundraising goals. "We're seeing this model that's been so successful in the world of arts hold up exceptionally well in the world of science," he says.

And for Leslie, the benefit is twofold: His project could get funded, and he can connect more easily with the public about his work. "I see this initiative as an excellent way to do both funding for a nontraditional science project, but also for outreach and getting people excited," he says.

The projects on the SciFund site are generally small, compared with those typically funded by agencies such as the National Science Foundation or the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But Ranganathan and Meece think researchers could start to fund more ambitious projects using crowds. "It's really a brand new model," Meece says, "so I think the future is very bright."

Ranganathan says that for him, it's less about the cash and more about the outreach. People who donate to a project feel a sense of ownership and excitement about that research, he says. And anyone who donates money to a project on RocketHub, gets something from that project in return, whether it's photographs from the field, a mention in a paper published in a journal or, in the case of Leslie's project, a clay model of a backward dolphin fin. "Obviously I'd have to draw or carve an arrow for the right direction," he says, laughing.

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