Late on the evening of December 14, a generous “fueler” made a $450 contribution on www.rockethub.com to support SFI’s first crowdfunding campaign. The donation, the last of 62 such acts during the six-week effort, put the total amount raised at $3,000, the campaign’s goal.

Reaching that goal meant SFI postdoc Marcus Hamilton and his two collaborators at the University of Missouri will be able to start a small but important research project they had long imagined. Their project will test the use of small satellite tracking devices, each the size of a cell phone, for gathering data about how indigenous people use the landscapes on which they depend.

Anthropologists believe there are some 100 uncontacted, indigenous human groups remaining in the world today; most live in remote parts of the Amazon Basin, where deforestation, agriculture, illegal mining, and encroaching modernization press in on their horizons, threatening their forager-hunter-gatherer way of life.

Uncontacted groups have had no verified contact with the modern world other than through indirect trade with neighboring indigenous groups. Many live within large reserva- tions, but little is known about how they move through and use their landscapes. Contacting such groups for the study is risky; newly contacted people often become exposed to diseases to which they have no immunity. In addition, many of these groups actively resist interaction with the outside world; any attempt by scientists to make contact must be under controlled, government-sanctioned circumstances.

Hamilton and his collaborators want to record the movements of such groups without having to go through the dangerous process of the first contact, so policymakers can make better-informed decisions about conserving their habitats.

The successful campaign allows the researchers to purchase 10 GPS units so they can work with the well-studied Ache of northern Paraguay to test the devices – incorporated into pots, baskets, and tools – keeping records of their movements by satellite. If the pilot project is successful, the researchers want to propose

a way to study the movements of uncontacted groups, through indirect trade, for example.

SFI’s use of Rockethub was also a test, of sorts. Today, crowdfunding is an increasingly common approach to philanthropic fundraising, and for raising seed money for projects in the arts. Essentially, many individuals, often engaged through social networks and word of mouth, contribute small amounts online toward a funding goal. Increasingly, scientists are using crowdfunding as a way to generate financial backing for needed but underfunded scientific research.

SFI collaborated with the SciFund Challenge, a nonprofit that promotes science crowdfunding, and Rockethub to conduct the campaign.

During the six-week giving window, much of SFI’s staff and faculty appealed to their own social networks for support. Hamilton made appearances at SFI events and on a local radio program. Members of SFI’s crowdfunding team handed out fliers. Posts to SFI’s Facebook page and Twitter feeds promoted the campaign.

“This project gave us a sense of how engaged our community of supporters is,” says Juniper Lovato, SFI Education and Outreach Program Coordinator, who led the campaign.

“The campaign got people talking about an important social issue that science and SFI can uniquely address,” says John German, SFI Director of Communications.

“This was an interesting and novel approach to funding,” says Hamilton. “It was very gratifying to see how interested people were in our research project, and we are extremely pleased about the support. Hopefully campaigns like this can help raise awareness of SFI and the diversity of its research to a new crowd.” 

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