Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Cap in hand

A word to the wise on getting that much-needed research funding.

Would you be willing to spend weekends on the yacht of a friendly billionaire in the name of science? Or insist to airport check-in staff that your life-saving research demands that you be upgraded from economy to business class? Perhaps you would be happy to see your face on a T-shirt? Or for folks you met on the Internet to traipse through your lab, taking photographs?

Welcome to the cold reality of science in a global recession. As the flow of public money slows across the world, academic researchers are increasingly turning to private funders and wealthy individuals- turned-philanthropists to pay for their work. There is a strong tradition of such support already, of course, especially in the biomedical field. But as government cuts around the world begin to bite, more and more scientists will be looking for alternative sources of income.

So, in a short series of articles this week, Nature focuses on where that money is and how you can access it. Do not feel too proud to ask. Some of your competitors are doing it already.

In our News Features, we look at the two extremes of research paid for by private individuals — from the billionaires willing to set up entire laboratories and pay for the work done there for years, to the web-based begging bowls that can take just a few dollars each from thousands of different people.

On page 254, we talk to those at the top: the big spenders, the entrepreneurs — and those scientists who have benefited from their largesse. How did they do it? Partly by being in the right place at the right time, although it helps to know where the right places are. And it helps even more to have something to say when you get there. As Thomas Pierson of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, says, “People give money to people.” One secret seems to be to think big. “If I ask for $100,000 and they say 'yes' right away, then I didn't ask for enough,” one university fund-raiser tells us. “It's a common mistake.”

At the other end of the scale are the crowd-funding websites, explored on page 252, where scientists can post details of their projects and ask many individuals to collectively cough up for them. From a low-cost robot for tackling oil spills to a project to map water quality along the Mississippi River, some researchers are already adept at tapping the potential of the masses. And although the target donors may be different, one key strategy remains the same: tell a good story. Sell yourself and sell your science.

Still, be wary of selling yourself short, warns a Comment piece on page 260. Patrick Aebischer, president of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, complains that too many donations to university research from charities and foundations come with a catch — they don't pay for the associated costs, such as salaries and utility bills. “Institutions with many privately funded projects are effectively 'punished' for their success,” he writes. “To meet the higher research-infrastructure costs, universities may drain resources from education, or diminish 'expensive' disciplines such as physics, chemistry or engineering, in which philanthropic support is scarce.” The solution, he says, is for institutions to identify the full cost of research activities and pass it on. “Private bodies should not hijack university resources. They should contribute a fair share of the expense.”

The money is certainly out there. Just look at the billions poured into football teams. And if the pages of the glossy magazines can be believed, the luxury-goods market remains strong. The money must be spent on something, so why not science? And although those weekends on luxury yachts may be a tough way to make it happen, someone has to do it.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Cap in hand. Nature 481, 238 (2012).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing