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.)