Kickstarting Science: Crowdfunded Research Explores Potential Health Impacts of Coal Trains
In recent years crowdfunding — raising money for a project from a number of small donors, usually online — has become a popular way to raise capital for business start-ups and artistic endeavors. Now scientists are also turning to this method to help pay for critical research.
This year Dan Jaffe, a University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences, is reaping the rewards of crowdfunding. He and his team are studying the air pollution emitted by passing coal trains. The money for the project came entirely from small online donors. “I was surprised how well this worked,” Jaffe said. “We’re never going to fund a new superconducting particle collider with this, but it definitely has a place.”
Jaffe’s study is specifically related to plans to build large coal-export terminals around the Pacific Northwest — plans that have become a lightning rod for controversy because of potential public health risks. The facilities would ship coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to lucrative markets in Asia. But to get the coal from Wyoming to export terminals in Washington and Oregon, the coal would have to be moved by open-topped rail cars. Between 18 and 37 coal trains a day would rumble across the West, passing through population centers like Seattle and Portland. The public has expressed concern about the clouds of coal dust and other pollutants that these coal trains might leave in their wake. But when Jaffe looked into it he found almost no research on the topic.
“It’s not my job to advocate a decision on this issue,” Jaffe said. “But I wanted to know if we have enough information about coal trains and the impact on air quality to make a decision on whether to permit these terminals. And we clearly do not.”
Jaffe took his concerns to state and national agencies and asked them to fund a study on how coal trains impact air quality. When they declined, he signed up for an account on microryza.com, a crowdfunding platform for scientists. The goal was to raise $18,000 for the research, and within a matter of days the project was fully funded. To date, more than $20,000 has been pledged by 271 small donors. “I didn’t even realize there was a crowdfunding platform for science until this came up,” said Alexis Bonogofsky, a Montana-based conservationist who contributed to the project via Microryza. “I feel like this democratizes science and it allows scientists to respond very quickly to questions we need to know now.”
The money allowed Jaffe and a team of undergraduates to set up air-quality monitoring devices near rail lines around Seattle and the Columbia River Gorge. Over the course of five weeks the team measured emissions from roughly 500 passing freight, coal, and passenger trains. The results were surprising: diesel emissions appeared to have a significant impact on air quality while coal dust emissions did not. Jaffe and his team found diesel emissions coming from passing trains to be about 25 percent higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates.
“No matter how you slice it, if you’re living right along the tracks your exposure to diesel particulate is significant. And if you add even more coal trains to the mix, that’s going to go up significantly,” Jaffe said. “For these homes in north Seattle that are right along the tracks, their exposure is comparable to if they lived in the most industrial part of Seattle.” Conversely, there did not appear to be much coal dust in the air near the rail lines Jaffe studied. “That seems to be a non-issue,” Jaffe said.
Although the coal train research has been successful, Jaffe warns that crowdfunding isn’t a quick cure-all for every project starved for funds. To use Microryza and other crowdfunding sites effectively, researchers must spend considerable time communicating with donors and generating publicity about their projects. “If I had to raise all of my team’s funding this way, there would be no time to do anything else,” Jaffe said. In addition, only certain types of projects are well suited to raising money in this fashion. “These (crowdfunded) projects have to be things that capture the public’s interest. And they have to be done with relatively small amounts of money,” Jaffe said. “A lot of the projects I do won’t work for crowdfunding.”
But for this particular project, the stars — and the crowds — aligned. “These coal terminals and the coal trains are a major environmental issue in the Northwest,” Jaffe said, “and yet the government doesn’t want to step up to the plate, for whatever reason, and fund the research on it. So I was very happy to see the public support to do science.”