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Not your father's research proposal: U of T students crowdfund their biochar study

PhD students Nigel Gale and Md. Abdul Halim (photos by Johnny Guatto)

The Chrysler plant in Brampton is probably not the first place that comes to mind when thinking about funding sources for graduate research.

 But that’s one of the places that University of Toronto Forestry PhD students Nigel Gale and Md. Abdul Halim went to when they were seeking funding for their biochar research recently.

Gale and Halim are investigating the effect of biochar – charcoal used as a soil amendment – on plant growth and productivity in Bangladesh. They needed funds for the research – more than $5,000 to cover such expenses as travel to Dhaka, purchase of biochar, a generator and gasoline to run it and more – but knew that applying for traditional funding through bodies such NSERC would take time, with no guarantee of success.

So, as social media savvy students, they decided to raise funds for their project through experiment.com, a crowd-funding site modeled on the popular Kickstarter site. But whereas Kickerstarter is used to raise funds for everything from apps to art pieces to innovative gadgets, experiment.com specializes in solicitations for research funding (taking eight per cent of the money raised).

And just like Kickstarter, a project has to reach its funding goal to receive any money.

Gale believes the biochar project is the first Canadian research project to succeed on experiment.com. It more than surpassed its $2,500 goal, with more than $4,000 raised to date.

To reach that goal, Gale and Halim (along with forestry professor Sean Thomas) offered incentives such as tea and postcards from Bangladesh, hard copies of their research findings and blogs, and even naming an experimental plot after donors. They advertised their project through social media sites such as Reddit and Facebook, and Gale even handed out leaflets at the Brampton Chrysler plant, where he works part-time on weekends.

A lot of work goes into an experiment.com proposal. The hopeful researchers have to post their bios, a summary of the project and its goals, a detailed breakdown of the budget, endorsements, project updates and more.

Crowdfunding research is very different from filling out grant applications, Gale says. “A lot of the time, the application forms for government bodies or the institution are kind of faceless – a fill-in-the-blanks checkbox kind of thing. But this is actually sharing your research with family and friends and people you don’t know and getting their pocket money in return. It takes a lot of work and requires a lot of transparency.”

“It’s a two-way exchange,” says Halim, who is also an assistant professor at Bangladesh’s Shahjalal University of Science and Technology. “People will ask you ‘why are you doing this? Why does this matter? How does this benefit me? Why are you going to Bangladesh?’ With a grant application you get one or two reviewers, but in this case everybody was a reviewer.”

“It can get extremely harsh in some cases,” Gale adds. “But it improved the research proposal.”

Preliminary research results have been encouraging, Halim says, with a 20 per cent increase in biomass in early plant growth when biochar is added to the soil. It also improves poor soil conditions such as leaching, acidification, and contamination, while directly mitigating climate change by increasing carbon sequestration.

photo of the two researchers in greenhouse

For the next stage of their research, Gale and Halim will be pursuing traditional funding sources. But they may go back to experiment.com as well.

“We had a $1,000 donation come in from a retired prof at UC Berkeley and we had no idea she even existed,” Gale says. “She just contacted us because she liked our proposal. We were over the moon with happiness. We’ve both won awards that were maybe 10 or 20 times that amount and not felt the same amount of joy.”

Learn more about the biochar project