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Communicating an idea concisely and precisely is a big challenge!

A page has been added to acknowledge sponsors and supporters of the project. Please check back often for progress updates!

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Off we go!

Round 2 of the #SciFund Challenge is going live on May 1. I would like to thank Jai Ranganathan and Jarrett Byrnes for all their hard work, and fellow SciFunders who have been most generous with constructive comments. Good luck everyone!

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Gearing up for the SciFund Challenge

Is crowdfunding a viable approach for basic science research? First of all, scientific research is an expensive and risky proposition. Making new discoveries means doing something that has not been done before, and doing anything for the first time is hard and prone to mistakes. It may take many years of hard work just to get the experiment right, just to see if the data it produces supports or refutes a hypothesis!

For much of history, support for scientific research has come from the wealthy and powerful. State sponsorship of scientific research is now the norm, but it was not always the case. Here in America, federal funding for scientific research is channeled through various agencies, such as the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Energy (DoE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Program managers at each of the agencies put out solicitations for research in their portfolios, or areas or responsibility, and make decisions (with external reviewer input) on funding. Researchers then write grant proposals, and hire technicians (or graduate students) to help with the day-to-day work in the lab (or field). While the present system is decidedly more meritocratic, the funding decision ultimately comes down to a small select group of individuals entrusted with public funds.

The creation of the Internet and the World Wide Web has been a disruptive force, shaking up countless industries and changing the way business is done around the world. Could it do the same for science?

One of the critiques of the existing system is that it promotes incremental rather than breakthrough research. Academia, with its “publish-or-perish” pressure for tenure-track faculty, must share as much of the blame as risk-adverse program managers. To get tenure, one must publish many papers in high impact-factor journals so that one’s works will be highly cited. In order to publish many papers, much funding is needed. To get the funding, one must pay close attention to hot topic trends in one’s discipline and track likely solicitation topics closely.

What happens to an idea which does not fall neatly into any program manager’s portfolio? To be fair, most federal agencies will accept unsolicited research proposals. However, the program managers are under no obligation to fund any of them. Since it is so expensive to do good research, many promising ideas have probably languished for lack of resources. This is where crowdfunding enters the picture!

By allowing the public to interact directly with the scientists, the crowdfunding model has two disintermediating effects. Firstly, the money takes a less circuitous route, and can be used more efficiently. Secondly, the scientific findings may be shared directly with a community which cares enough about the research to fund it in the first place, which might help the public understand science in a new light.

What an exciting experiment to be a part of!

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Catalysts in green chemistry

Catalysts are used to speed up the rate of a chemical reaction. For example, the catalytic converter in automobiles speeds up the breakdown of engine exhaust gases to harmless carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water. Catalysis is important in chemical production. Catalysts can reduce the time and amount of energy used in producing chemicals. The search for better catalysts is an important part of green chemistry.

Green chemistry is predicated upon efficiency. An efficient chemical process minimizes the amount of energy and resources used to produce a product. Reduction or elimination of hazardous solvents and reactants means less money spent on treatment and disposal of toxic waste. Decisions made early in the design of a chemical plant can make a big difference to the bottom line.

Wildcat Metallurgy LLC is developing nontoxic fusible alloy catalysts for use in continuous-flow chemical reactors. (Fusible means low-melting point, as is the case for alloys used in electrical fuses.) Most catalytic systems rely on solid particles supported on an inert scaffold or suspended in a liquid solution. The CatAlloy molten metal catalysts operate in a liquid state at temperatures below the boiling point of many solvents, opening new approaches to chemical processing which are only now being explored.

Please check back once in a while to see what we’re doing with this exciting new technology!

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Good news everyone!

“Nothing is impossible, not if you can imagine it. That’s what being a scientist is all about.” – Prof. H. Farnsworth, Futurama

C. P. Snow, in The Two Cultures, described a divide between the sciences and the humanities. Certainly, the growth in scientific knowledge over the centuries means many years of study are necessary to gain the expertise needed to work effectively in a scientific discipline. Scientists often lapse into jargon in communicating findings, making it difficult for people who are not experts in their field to understand the significance of their research. We need more bridges across that divide, to make it easier for everyone to appreciate the beauty and elegance in the world we share.

Chemistry has fared particularly poorly in the popular imagination, despite its importance in modern life. If I told you that chemicals are in the air you breath, the water you drink, and the food you eat, would you not find it worrisome? Yet, life is itself a complex system of chemical reactions, a tightly choreographed dance of atoms which eventually became aware of itself. The fact that there are chemicals in our everyday life should not be troubling; we are ourselves made of chemicals, after all. It has been said that we fear that which we do not understand, could it be that a better understanding of chemistry would help dispel the unease?

Perhaps it is not quite so simple. The modern environmental movement grew in part out of opposition to the excesses of the chemical industry. The growing recognition of negative externalities has resulted in increasingly stringent regulations on environmental pollutants. However, there is no inherent contradiction between ecology and economics. An efficient process which minimizes the amount of energy and materials used to deliver the same quantity of product can be both ecologically sound and economically viable. One may imagine a future in which sustainable industrial practices mean a higher standard of living for more people across the world, without damaging the planetary life support systems we all rely on.

We are not there yet with today’s technology, but we can imagine it. Thank you for reading.

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