Monday, May 16, 2016

Sources of Citizen Science Funding (Part 1)

Photo Courtesy: FrankieLeon
Last year I set out to describe the many ways citizen science can provide economic value and earn money for citizen scientists to expand their efforts.  That effort continues, but it doesn't address the main CURRENT source of citizen science funding...the government.  So it's important to start looking at where it is coming from and where it is going.

The first place many people look is on the web site which hosts a searchable catalog of all Federal crowdsourcing and citizen science projects.  While this is a great resource for people looking for existing projects to join (and which I will also be writing about in the future), it's not a source for funding new ideas.  So we need to find a different strategy.

As a former Federal employee my next thought is to review all the grants and contracts awarded by Uncle Sam over the last four years.  All of this information is publicly available through the government's transparency website USASpending.  Not only does it provide funding agency, amount, and summary description, it also provides a lot of secondary information such as the type of organization receiving the funds, pricing terms, and option years.  But there have been long-standing data problems with the site; these are issues I worked with a lot in my former career and which I'm hoping to minimize during these analyses.  There are also just inherent problems of identifying something as a "Citizen Science" award when public participation is only part of the award, or when they are developing tools that may (or may not) be useful to citizen scientists for future work, or when they are simply using data first developed by citizen scientists.  So while there is much to learn it can't be considered a definitive source.

For those who wish to "play along at home", the data sets for this and related analyses are available online here (use the worksheet "All Contracts").

Findings and Discussion:
Although U.S. Federal government support for citizen science contract awards is very low, this is only a small slice of the potential support it could receive.  As both a new(-ish) field and a research area, citizen science is not well-suited for contractual support.  Under government rules, contracts are reserved for organizations providing goods or services directly to the government as part of  "acquisition".  This is different from grants and cooperative agreements which provide "assistance" to organizations doing work for the general benefit of society, but do not provide a direct benefit to the government.  This is like the difference between the government buying a pick-up truck for use by rangers in a national park, and supporting research on ways to improve pick-up truck fuel efficiency.  Both are good things for government to do, but only one benefits government directly.  So citizen science (much like other research endeavors) may receive much more funding through grants.  That will be the subject of a future blog post. 

Additionally, based on the data it would appear that nearly all these awards were openly competed, however, there is no information on the RFP or solicitation numbers associated with those competitions.  This is interesting information that I'd like to include so others may take advantage of it.  Unfortunately since that data is not here it will need to be pulled from another data source and will also be the subject of a future blog post.

Initial Results:
During this four-year period only a surprisingly small number of contracts were awarded to support citizen science; less than one million dollars per year.  And of those almost all of the money came from NASA for it's astronomy-based programs (including support for various Zooniverse projects like Disk Detective).  And the money went to teams of existing (professional) research teams at large research institutions, not to citizen scientists or to directly support work by individuals.  Instead the support was for more "systemic" programs that build up the field in general or use citizen science data.

In summary:
  • Approximately $3.6 million was awarded in either base or potential option years, for a total of approximately $900,000 per year.
  • There were 16 unique awards made (four per year) at an average size of , with an average size of approximately $240,000.
  • The primary funding agencies were:
    • NASA: 11 awards worth $3,491,802
    • Department of the Interior: 3 awards worth $27,196
    • EPA: 1 award worth $3,460
  • All but one award was made to a large research university/foundation or large non-profit organization.
  1. Perform Advanced Search at for all awards with permutations of the terms "Citizen Science", "Citizen Scientist", "PPSR", and "Public Participation in Scientific Research", under the following parameters:
    • All contracts, grants, and subawards
    • Fiscal years 2012-2015 (full FY2016 data is not yet available)
  2. Combine full results of all searches into a single spreadsheet, while maintaining the search term and source file for each listing, and separating by assistance awards (grants), subawards, and acquisition contracts.
  3. Review all non-monetary transactions for potential data errors.  In some cases a contract would come up with no dollars attached, and upon further review in USASpending a grant using the same Federal award ID number would appear with money attached.  In these cases the award was presumably miscoded by type and the new transactions were added to the spreadsheet.
  4. Eliminate all remaining non-monetary transactions, such as no-cost extensions.
  5. Review the project descriptions of each award to ensure they are actually associated (in some meaningful way) with citizen science.
While Federal contracts are an available source of citizen science funding, they are not ideally suited for these projects and agencies have not used this vehicle frequently over the last four years.  Instead we need to continue looking at other alternatives, such as Federal assistance funding, as well as funding from State/local governments as well as private sources.  So our research will continue over the next few weeks to identify more promising options for everyone.

- First in an occasional series


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