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With Federal Funding Elusive, Texas Professors Crowdfund Research

Shelby Knowles
Texas Tribune
University of Texas at Austin professor Misha Matz is using crowdfunding to raise money for his research into the best ways to protect coral reefs from climate change.

When Mikhail Matz visits the world's coral reefs, he's consistently awed by "perhaps the most spectacular manifestation of life's beauty, complexity and just sheer profusion that can be witnessed on this planet," he said. 

But as the earth's oceans have warmed over recent decades, the biologist and other scientists have watched those reefs slowly deteriorate. They urgently want to find ways to save the reefs, but federal research funds are shrinking and the number of scientists seeking those dollars has grown. 

So Matz has picked up a new way to raise money for his effort. He is one of a handful ofUniversity of Texas at Austin professors resorting to crowdfunding to help fund their research. He says he'll try anything to advance the science in his field. 

This year, the university set up Hornraiser, a website to help the researchers bring in those dollars from the general public. Four UT-Austin researchers are currently running crowdfunding campaigns on the site. If all goes as planned, they'll raise more than $56,000 combined to pay for new ways to discover fossils, treat alcoholism and study biodiversity. 

The Hornraiser site was created by the university's fundraising office as a way to solicit small donations. For years, that department has been set up to bring in major gifts but has had a hard time finding ways to get money from people only prepared to make small, one-time contributions of $10 or so. Officials hope this site will emulate the success of sites like Kickstarter or GoFundMe, which have raised millions for nonprofits, startups and artists for years. 

The setup mirrors those more established crowdfunding sites. Every few months, the fundraising office puts out a call to researchers, student organizations and other campus groups hoping to raise money. The people selected are then given access to the Hornraiser site. They are expected to make a video about why they are raising money and what people's donations will support. Then, they are expected to spread word about their projects themselves. 

"One of the stipulations is that you have to bring your own crowd," said Adrian Matthys, director of annual giving for UT-Austin. "We are not going to drum up support for you."

And the goal is to reach people far beyond the usual UT-Austin donor base. Matz is working to map out genomes for coral across the world. He'll then share that information with other researchers and use it to figure out how adaptable coral can be. Knowing that will allow scientists to come up with ways to save the reefs, or just leave the coral alone to save themselves. 

Potential supporters for that kind of work are spread far beyond UT-Austin's typical donors. People in the Caribbean or Australia might be interested in contributing to Matz's project, even if they have no connections to the university where it's happening. 

So far, the crowdfunding effort has had mixed success. Matz's campaign began in October and closes Dec. 5. He has only raised about $2,000 of his $15,000 goal. Matz said his page on Hornraiser has been shared widely on social media. But so far, many people seem more willing to tweet about it than to donate. Matz, who is Russian, said he worries his accent may be turning off people who watch his video.

Others have easily met their goals. This spring, chemistry professor Stephen Martin used Hornraiser to try to bring in $15,000 for his promising research on molecules that could treat brain injuries or diseases like Alzheimer's. His campaign drew in 72 donors who combined to give more than $40,000. 

For Martin, asking the public for money was an adjustment. He said he worried about over-promising — brain research moves forward in slow steps, and he hoped people knew their donations wouldn't bring an immediate cure to Alzheimer's. But in the end, he said the money he raised could end up being hugely important. 

"I believe in this work, so I am OK with this," he said. 

Matz feels the same way. He cares deeply about the reefs, and is willing to try anything to save them. 

"I can't see any possible drawback," he said. "I'm doing what I think is right. I'll take anybody's money for this."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.