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Scientists turn to crowdfunding for fracking research

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Nelson Harvey | May 25, 2014 05:00 AM

A scientist from the University of Missouri who recently found elevated levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals in parts of Garfield County, Colo. where spills of wastewater from natural gas drilling occurred is now planning the second phase of her research, but with a surprising funding mechanism this time. Rather than seeking backing from government agencies or private foundations, Dr. Susan Nagel and her team are drumming up donations in the same way that many before them have started small businesses, made documentary films, or produced t-shirts adorned with images of Miley Cyrus twerking: they’re crowdfunding their research through a new website called Experiment.com.

Nagel’s crowdfunding attempt – she’s seeking $25,000, has raised about $11,000 since March 24 and has 36 days to go – represents at least the fourth time in recent years that U.S. scientists have turned to the general public for financial help researching the health effects of the gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking (which involves pumping a slurry of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to release oil or gas). Earlier this year, a team of researchers from the University of Washington raised $12,000 through Experiment.com to study how much gas drilling contributes to ozone in Utah’s Uinta Basin, and last year a team from Pennsylvania’s Juniata College raised $10,000 to examine the impact of fracking on stream ecology throughout the state. Another Experiment.com campaign by a University of Colorado biologist seeking to use microorganisms to see whether methane in drinking water came from fracking failed after falling short of its funding goal back in March.

Nagel’s own research centers on the link between fracking and endocrine disrupting chemicals, which either mimic or interfere with sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone and have been linked to cancer, infertility and behavioral and immune system disorders. In their recent study, Nagel and her colleagues tested 12 of the hundreds of chemicals commonly used in the fracking process and found that 11 of those tested had endocrine disrupting potential. Yet no research to date has shown definitively that fracking can result in damages to human health.

At a time when the government's own research on fracking is coming under fire from both sides of the political spectrum, industry-funded studies on the topic remain suspect and relatively little other financing for such research exists, crowdfunding is emerging as a way for some researchers to launch early stage work on the relationship between fracking, pollution and health.

Fracking for natural gas on the Haynesville Shale near Shreveport, Louisiana. Photograph by Flickr user Daniel Foster.

Nagel said she was driven toward crowdfunding in part by the paucity of federal money for fracking research. “US EPA announced three years ago that they would be funding research about the safety of fracking,” wrote Nagel in an email, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency. “However, before they began accepting applications, that program was canceled. ” Though Nagel said the agency gave no explanation for that decision, she suspects the lack of federal funding for fracking research has political roots: the EPA has frequently been blasted by prominent Republican critics for its investigations into whether fracking pollutes drinking water, and President Barack Obama often cites the job-creating potential of the domestic oil and gas industry, whose parade would certainly be rained on by bad news about the health effects of drilling.

In phase two of her research, Nagel hopes to collect water samples from at least 30 Garfield County sites (she sampled from just seven in the first phase) and to measure endocrine disruptor levels in drilling dense areas where spills haven’t taken place. She also hopes to launch a comprehensive analysis of whether the hormone disrupting compounds she detects are some of the same ones used in the fracking process.

Nagel recently applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but after the scientists reviewing her application suggested several tweaks – recommending, for example, that she also test for hormones affecting the human thyroid gland – Nagel was forced to re-apply in the coming months and wait a year for the next round of NIH funding.

“Facing such a long delay, we decided to turn to crowdfunding to raise money in a much shorter period of time,” Nagel said.

The speed and flexibility of crowdfunding science is one of its main selling points, but Nagel still sees crowdfunding as more of a supplement to government research grants than a substitute.

“Our ultimate goal is to generate enough preliminary data [through crowdfunding] that we can get that NIH grant and be able to do this kind of research for years to come,” she says. “Experiment.com is filling a little niche there of funding preliminary research.”

Whether crowd-funded research is less susceptible to bias or influence peddling than work funded by industry – or even government – remains to be seen. It seems logical that a large and diverse donor pool would tend to dilute the influence of individual agendas: The University of Washington study of fracking and air quality, for instance, had 155 unique donors and the average donation was just $77.23 – hardly enough to bribe even an impoverished scientist.

Experiment.com also has a technical committee that reviews each research project before accepting it as a crowdfunding candidate: the group evaluates the validity of the research question, the scope and feasibility of the project, and the credentials of the scientist in charge.

Even so, if those who fund fracking research are primarily the people adversely affected by drilling or critical of the practice to begin with, could that put pressure on researchers to point fingers at the gas industry in their results?

Experiment.com spokeswoman Rebecca Searles doesn’t think so.

“You're right, there is definitely some bias in crowdfunding,” she wrote in an email. “People are more likely to fund research that they feel an emotional attachment to. But we actually think crowdfunding bias is an improvement over partial blind peer-review panels where the real bias is conflict of interest or politics or risk aversion or bureaucracy or ageism, etc. Crowdfunding, on the other hand, only requires that enough people care to see it happen.”

Nelson Harvey is a freelance reporter and the editor of edibleASPEN magazine.

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