Three new observations about crowdfunding

Since I wrote my previous post, I’ve been to SpotOn London, where I attended a session about crowdfunding. One of the panelists was Ethan Perlstein, who is still raising funds for his lab. One of the other panelists was Cindy Wu, co-founder of Microryza, who Skyped in from the US. You can watch the entire session here if you have an hour to spare.

1. Cindy explained what prompted the launch of Microryza. She was working in a lab as a student, and wanted to do an additional project, but the project was too small to find conventional funding. When she told that story, something clicked with me. I was – and still am – skeptical of crowdfunding for entire research projects, but as I said in my previous post, it might work for side-projects, and I found it reassuring that she mentioned that as inspiration.

2. After meeting Ethan last weekend, I donated to his crowdfunding campaign. I don’t really know if I would have done so if I had not met him. I was definitely on the fence while I wrote my previous post, and I was telling myself I should remain objective and unbiased, and that I can’t donate to every project I come across, and I have to draw a line somewhere. But then I met him and he’s really nice and knows what he’s talking about and I just wanted his project to do well, so I pitched in.

That got me thinking: is that exactly the kind of thing that crowdfunding research relies on?

There is nothing material I get in return (other than the 3D methamphetamine thank-you gift), there is no guarantee the project will work. It’s not like pitching in for a Kickstarter campaign for a new magazine (see below), where the money is literally used to kickstart a project that can then start generating its own revenue. Crowdfunding research is basically a donation to someone to do research, and I’m far more tempted to give money to people I’ve met and like than to strangers on the Internet.

3. Several months ago, I donated to the Kickstarter project for Matter magazine. This week, they launched their first issue. Now, Matter embarked on a truly new and experimental way to disseminate long-form science writing. For $0.99 you buy one very well-written article that you can read online or on a Kindle or iPad or other device. Would people pay money for one article? With my Kickstarter donation I got a few free articles, and I downloaded the first one to read on the train this week. It is amazing. It’s scary. And it’s long. Definitely worth $0.99. When downloaded on my iPad it’s a 39-page ebook.

It’s an article by Anil Ananthaswamy about people who have a disorder that makes them think one of their limbs doesn’t belong to their body, and voluntarily have it amputated. It’s strange and alien and graphic. I wanted a hug while I read it (as if my own limbs were not even enough for me) but there were only train-strangers around me, so I just sort of hugged my coat and pressed against the train window. When was the last time an article made you do that?

When I donated to the Matter Kickstarter campaign, I didn’t know what to expect. Nobody did. They raised an incredible amount of money through word-of-mouth. I donated because everyone who I normally agree with on issues of long-form journalism and magazines also donated. We not only wanted things to read, but we wanted there to be a successful platform where longform writing wasn’t ignored. We didn’t know if we’d ever get our money’s worth, but if the other articles will be as good as this one, we clearly did.

Conclusions? I have none. I just wanted to share these new thoughts, to follow up on my previous post.

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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8 Responses to Three new observations about crowdfunding

  1. Nice followup post, Eva!

    If our stats are in any way generalizable, over half of our donations have come from people I’ve never met. I actually think that as crowdfunding matures, the ratio of strangers to friends will steadily increase.

    I would love to see more of these stats from successfully crowdfunded projects, but most project leaders don’t seem to be into real-time data sharing. They’re probably just too in the thick of the campaign, but nothing stops them from posting stats after the fact. For example, this post by Brooke Borel about her cool bedbug project: http://brookeborel.com/2012/10/17/kickstarter-made-it/

    More stats should demystify the process, which would IMHO make it easier to give money to people you’ve never met.

  2. steve caplan says:

    Extremely interesting! Being shell-shocked and locked in my own growing list of academic obligations, I had missed your previous blog and this was the first I had ever heard of “crowdsourcing.” What strikes me is that it sounds like a fantastic amount of work to do this. Assuming the I even had the ability to put together such a compelling and well-described proposal to the layman public (big assumption!), there is no way I could even imagine being able to handle all of the “follow up” described by Dr. Perlstein–it’s quite remarkable: keeping donors up to date on the research, inviting larger donors to participate in lab meetings. Just keeping the site updated seems daunting to me. But I certainly wish Dr. Perlstein and any other basic scientists great success in this exciting endeavor!

    • Stephenemoss says:

      I too wish Dr Perlstein every success in achieving his scientific goals. Yet there is something that makes me uneasy about crowdfunding, although I’m probably swimming against the tide of scientific opinion on this. I worry that scientists who resort to crowdfunding might do so because their research isn’t strong enough to secure funding through the normal competitive routes. I worry that accountability may be less rigorous when it comes to ‘crowdfunds’, after all the investigator doesn’t have to sign the legally binding terms and conditions letter that would accompany receipt of a grant award. I worry that appeals to fund science in this way may exploit the more vulnerable or gullible members of the public.

      I cannot imagine a situation where I would contribute to a crowdfunded project. Unless the work was right in my own area I would be unable to judge the merits of the research, its feasibility, or the competence of the investigator. In fact, I am aware of one such project that is absolutely in my area, and I understand the science well enough to know that it has zero chance of delivering its extravagant promise. A broader concern is that dishonest or failing scientists could see this as a means to fund lab meetings in Hawai or dinners at expensive restaurants. Evidence of such misuse of funds would lead to all the scientific community being discredited, just as we all get tarnished when a minority of rogue scientists publish fraudulent data.

      I hope my cynicism is misplaced – in an ideal world our respective governments would have the sense to fund science properly, and there would be no need to crowdfund.

      • Thanks for the positive feedback!

        Your concern is one I hear the most, and effective fraud detection will have to be part of any mature crowdfunding mechanism. But what I find is missing from your constructive criticism is a critique on the status quo.

        The average age at which an independent academic scientist wins his or her first R01 is 42. I’m 32. And with over 80% rejection rates, I don’t like these odds.

        To ask perfectly competent 30-something scientists who have jumped over the hurdles of college, grad school and postdoc to accept a professional holding pattern or to drop out is unacceptable for society that seeks to be globally competitive.

        There is crowd-enabled financing available for shovel-ready basic research projects. We should be encouraging scientists who feel capable to do more crowdfunding! Yes, it’s a lot of work. But sounds way more appealing than the soul-crushing gov’t grant route.

        My 2cents.

      • Zen Faulkes says:

        “I worry that scientists who resort to crowdfunding might do so because their research isn’t strong enough to secure funding through the normal competitive routes.”

        1. We heard the same concern when open access journals like PLOS ONE debuted. “It’ll just be a dumping ground for crap science.” That has not happened.

        2. The “normal competitive routes” are funding – at best – a tiny percentage of perfectly viable proposals. The notion that “If it’s good, you will be funded” is out of touch with the reality of declining budgets and increased applications.

        “I worry that accountability may be less rigorous when it comes to ‘crowdfunds’(.)”

        Sure, a researcher could take the money and run – just like people could take money and run on eBay. But by and large, people don’t, because there is transparency and feedback. There is a reputation economy at work, something which scientists should already intimately familiar with.

        Do you really think that “legally binding agreements” are all that keep scientists from squandering money on themselves? Do you truly think that little of your colleagues and peers?

  3. FWIW I donated to Ethan’s campaign too (not the first time I’ve crowdfunded a research proposal either, albeit with modest sums each time). I knew about it before I met him in person at #solo12 and *didnt* quite get around to funding it.

    It’s only after meeting him and seeing first hand that he’s a genuine guy with great ideas that I decided I would actually donate some money. Incidentally, the other crowdfunding project I’ve previously funded (which I won’t name only because it didn’t ‘succeed’ / reach it’s funding target) I had also already met the person IRL who started it.

    Meeting people in meatspace is important. It can make that small but important difference. *That’s* why I go to so many conferences… ;)

  4. Eva Amsen says:

    Stephen, I actually think accountability is *higher* for crowdfunded work, because people are going to want to know what happens, and I would think the researchers also feel more responsible if they receive funds directly rather than via a grant.