Crowdfunding research not yet a crowd pleaser

Academic researchers are one of the few professionals who have to spend a large amount of time throughout their entire career begging for money just to keep their job.

It’s hard to get grants. It’s a lot of work to apply for them, and many are not awarded. Researchers that don’t get the funding they apply for may have to switch projects, or even close down their lab. Even when there is money to keep the lab afloat, money is tight, and many side projects fall by the wayside. For these projects, crowdfunding may be an alternative.

Crowdfunding recently became a popular method of funding new tech or entertainment products or artistic projects. It allows people to ask for many small donations from individuals who support the proposed work, rather than a large amount from a single source.

The most popular crowdfunding platform is Kickstarter, which launched in 2009. It was the initial source of funding for the Cards Against Humanities card game, Julia Nunes’ latest CD, and the Pebble watch.

With the popularity of Kickstarter, a number of other crowdfunding platforms were launched, each with a slightly different angle or method. Indiegogo allows projects from across the world (unlike Kickstarter, which is limited to very few countries due to middle-man Amazon’s payment regulations). Pledgemusic specializes in music projects. RocketHub was one of the first of the broadly themed crowdfunding sites to encourage scientists to crowdsource funding for their research projects.

At this moment, there are six projects in the “science” category at RocketHub, of which two directly go toward research: Chris Thomas has, in the past two weeks, raised $10 toward a $10,000 goal to fund the research of Magnus Essand. Ethan Perlstein is doing a lot better, and has raised over $8000 in the same amount of time, toward a $25,000 goal.

A few times per year, there are far more than six science projects on RocketHub. They’ve partnered with the SciFund Challenge, an organisation that helps scientists develop crowdfunding proposals. They’re currently training the third round of SciFund applicants, whose projects will go live on RocketHub in November. SciFund helps researchers build a crowdfunding campaign, and explains the importance of marketing and language, but still, most of their projects don’t reach their full funding goal. However, unlike some of the other crowdfunding platforms, RocketHub projects that don’t meet their full funding goal do get to keep the money they raised, and spend that on part of the project as they see fit.

While some popular Kickstarter projects raise ten times or more of their target goal (the Pebble watch even raised over a hundred times the $100,000 they asked for), scientific research projects are nowhere near this level of fundraising.

But why does this work at all? Why are a quarter of SciFund Challenge projects fully funded? Why would you contribute to someone else’s research project?

Many of the research projects that have successfully used crowdfunding have been directly appealing. They’re easy to understand, and relatable. Even when the work itself is highly technical, the description has focused on the bigger picture.

But what happens with your money? Funding a research project does not give a direct return on investments. In the non-research Kickstarter examples I gave above, contributors got a chance to pre-order the final product. They effectively prepaid for their Cards Against Humanities game, their Julia Nunes CD, or their Pebble watch, and the creators used those funds to finalize production. This can be an appealing incentive to fund a project, but it obviously doesn’t apply to academic research.

Research can’t guarantee any outcomes. You can’t promise funders that you’re going to cure a disease or find the last animal of a nearly-extinct species. You can only promise that you’ll work on it.

In that regard, it’s not that different from the technology or artistic products that are funded via Kickstarter. Sometimes, they don’t materialize. If a company raises money to develop a product, they can’t guarantee that they’ll definitely be able to create and mass-produce it. Last month, Kickstarter updated their guidelines for hardware and product design projects, to make it more clear to funders that the product is not yet ready, and that Kickstarter is not a store. They want to discourage people from offering the finished product as reward, and emphasize that funding should be a way to support the work of a person or company you care about.

Still, even when the rewards are purely as a thank-you gift – as they will always be for scientific research projects – people who back a project may want to know where their money is going. If a project reaches more than its intended goal (which a number of them have done) what are the researchers planning to spend the additional money on? So far there haven’t been any questions about scientific projects, but in a scenario that can easily be extended to research, Kickstarter backers of Amanda Palmer’s CD and tour raised questions about her expenses – especially when she asked for volunteer backup musicians after already having raised over a million dollars. Be prepared to account for everything you do with money raised through crowdfunding!

Scientific crowdfunding is not raking in millions, though. Even with cute pictures and clear descriptions, some of the most interesting research projects have not even reached half of their goal. Why not? It could be because people don’t care about the research of people they don’t know.

Successful crowdfunding relies on getting your name out there – the same way musicians get their projects funded through Kickstarter. Ethan Perlstein has been doing just that, by promoting his project everywhere, being accessible online via social media and his lab website, and even holding a launch party. If that sounds like a lot of work, remember how much work goes into grant-writing.

Is it worth it?

As a researcher, you can’t run a lab on crowdfunding alone, but you can use it to try to fund a project that you can’t afford otherwise.

For the backers of a crowdfunded project, it’s also a way to get closer to the research, and feel a part of it. They may get a thank-you email, a mention on the website, a photo of the work, or maybe a lab visit. That might not be as much incentive as receiving a special edition of their favourite musician’s CD, but the most direct output of academic research is knowledge, and that’s not something you can pre-order in limited special editions.

Still, backing one project directly may be appealing to people who want to get their knowledge directly from the researchers. Where tax-funded research leads to a broad general output of knowledge in the form of documentaries, newspaper articles, and books, crowdfunding may get you personal email updates from the one lab you funded. It’s a chance to get a glimpse into the process of research.

Crowdfunding is unlikely to bring in enough money to support entire labs. If you lose your main research grant, you can’t replace it by creating a RocketHub project. I don’t say this because I don’t believe that it will catch on, but because even the most popular and obnoxiously self-promoting musicians who use crowdfunding are not bringing in the kind of money that would support an average lab for more than a few years. Research is ridiculously expensive.

So don’t use crowdfunding as a life-saver, but as a source of funding for your pet projects. Other than SciFund and RocketHub, there are a few other crowdfunding platforms for researchers such as Petridish.org and Microryza.

(P.S. I’d been sitting on this idea for a post for months, and just as I thought “This weekend I’ll have time to write!” the Economist covered the exact same topic. Great timing.

My own idea originally started as “how to be an indie researcher” – a post in which I’d list a few alternatives to the way research is done. But there was way too much to be said about crowdfunding alone, so this post happened. Let me know in the comments if you want me to do the “indie scientist” post after all! It will include drop-in community labs, citizen science, open access/science, DIY Bio, “science hostels” and other ideas. No, I will not teach you how to set up a meth lab.)

About Eva Amsen

Former lab rat, now professional friend of lab rats. I've done research and freelance writing, and currently work in scientific publishing. In my spare time I talk to and write about people who are involved in both music and science. In my remaining spare time I play violin. Sometimes I sleep, but not often. My regular irregularly updated blog is at easternblot.net
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17 Responses to Crowdfunding research not yet a crowd pleaser

  1. Stephen says:

    Interesting background to crowd-funding. I suspect Chris Thomas’s effort stalled at $10 because another group has launched a separate effort to crowd-funds that project – I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago on Occam’s Corner.

  2. Eva Amsen says:

    Hm, he seems to have launched his project around the time you wrote that post, but he may not have known there was another initiative.

  3. Eva, thanks for your thoughtful, balanced post!

    PZ Myers took on the question of science crowdfunding last week, too: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/10/18/it-has-come-to-this/

    So there is convergence in the air. I was actually struck by a comment left on Pharyngula by Stephen Curry, who I see just posted here as well. If I may: Stephen, you said that you think crowdfunding research is concerning and that you wouldn’t want it to be the norm. I’m really curious to know your objections.

    If your concerns relate to scalability, which is the most popular critique I hear, then there’s no good response other than defaulting to ideological orientation because the data for science crowdfunding are too sparse and idiosyncratic, despite the success of efforts like SciFund. I like to think of it this way. Could the Wright Bros envision the 747?

    It would be sheer folly to think that science crowdfunding will rival the R01 anytime soon, though I would bet that someone will pull off a $100,000+ caper in the next 12-18 months. What I find most exciting about crowdfunding basic research is how it will unleash the creativity energies and passions of thousands of scientists around the world, who will keep incrementally pushing the limits of what is possible till one day we wake up and labs are supporting themselves with a mix of funding streams, including crowdfunding.

    • Stephen says:

      Scalability isn’t my concern – it’s more to do with science becoming a popularity contest through crowd-funding. I certainly see good opportunities, especially with regard to getting the public more involved in conversations around the funding of science, and there are some interesting questions to be raised about democratic accountability of publicly-funded scientists.

      But I think the funding process also has to be tempered by detailed consideration of the scientific context, which requires a degree of expertise. It’s by no means foolproof, but the panels established by major funders do have a remit to consider competing applications directly and generally have access to more detailed information that is presented on crowd-funding sites. My guess it they are more likely to be sympathetic to the funding of blue-skies research than the general public.

      I think it has an interesting role but, like you (and Eva), see it as a minor contribution.

      • Actually, I didn’t mean to imply that crowdfunding would be a minor contribution. I have no idea how big it will grow.

        As to your point about government grants, the system you describe is nice but doesn’t reflect reality, at least in the US. Success rates for the R01 are less than 20% and the average age at which an independent academic scientist gets his or her first R01 is 42. The current system is broken and only threatened by looming budget cuts and the cost of biomedical research increasing faster than inflation.

        The hypercompetition for government grants means applications become more risk-averse, not less! And the young innovator-type awards are nice but they shower favor on a small number of PIs who already descend from privileged pedigrees. So I agree that in principle peer review is better than a pure popularity contest, though neither describes reality in my opinion.

        One final point. I also think that the characterization of crowdfunding as a popularity contest sells scientists short, as though there a few intrinsically compelling natural phenomena out there and everything else is hopefully obscure or narrow. Scientific context can be created by a group that is naturally bilingual in sciencese and plain English: science writers/journalists. Now I don’t think science writers are living up to their potential and would need to in order to make crowdfunding scale. But “expertise” does not exclusively reside in NIH study sections.

  4. Lou Woodley says:

    Nice timing! As you probably already know, we’re going to be talking about crowdfunding at SpotOn London (http://www.nature.com/spoton/event/spoton-london-formerly-science-online-london-2012/), where it’s one of the discussion sessions. Ethan’s part of the panel and Akshat Rathi (who wrote the Economist article you mentioned) is coordinating the session.

    I’m with Stephen in that I wonder whether crowdfunding will turn research into a popularity contest, but I also think that it offers good opportunities to share what doing research is actually like. One of the rewards for funding Ethan’s project, for example, is the opportunity to take part in a lab meeting. Feeling accountable to backers may encourage the scientists whose projects are funded to blog or to find other accessible ways to explain their research and to respond directly to questions.

    It’ll be interesting to see how this potential for engagement plays out e.g. if you initially fund work by a friend of a friend and it’s a positive experience, would you fund them a 2nd time or perhaps even choose a totally different project run by a stranger?

    • Eva says:

      I’ve marked that session as “definitely attend” in my schedule already :)
      My entire #solo12 experience is already mapped out…

  5. Thorsten says:

    Thank you for the very interesting article.
    We are currently developing an crowdfunding-platform especially for science and science communication. It’s called sciencestarter (www.sciencestarter.de) and will be launched end of november.
    Antoher interesting aspect of crowdfunding for science is that it’s not only offering of a new financial source but also a new tool of science communication. Crowdfunding is a new tool for scientists to communicate their work and research and to establish communities and networks. At the same time, the society (= the backers) can influence science (at least a little bit). That means, a crowdfunding platform like sciencestarter.de is not only a new financial source for scientists but also a new tool for real two-way dialogue.

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  7. Those of us who were around Toronto in the heady days of the Cystic Fibrosis gene research (circa 1989) will recall an attempt at “crowd funding” then – the setting up of a booth in the Eaton Centre, asking for donations to CF research directly from the public. Not so very different from Kickstarter – and possibly more effective in some cases (direct engagement with the public vs. internet engagement with a much larger potential group, who are easily distracted by just about anything else – including competing projects that are all-too-easy to find online).

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