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Crowd-Funding for Research Dollars: A Cure for Science’s Ills?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Science in crisis

Scientists – and science generally – are in a moment of crisis on multiple fronts. The gap between science and society has grown to a chasm, with disastrous consequences for issue after issue. For example, just last month, Tennessee passed legislation permitting creation “science” into classrooms. On another front, the concern of Americans about global warming has dramatically declined over the past decade,  despite the scientific consensus on the clear and present danger caused by climate change.

But science illiteracy in the general public isn’t the only crisis in science. Funding for research is becoming increasingly unattainable, with funding rates at their lowest levels in a decade at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the two most important American science agencies (see here and here for details). The situation in many other nations is no better. In Spain, for example, science spending by the central government has fallen by 20% since 2009. Even worse, research funding from traditional sources will likely be even harder to come by in the years to come due to ongoing economic instability around the world.

The solution

The public disengagement with science and the difficulty of funding research are very different problems. Unexpectedly though, there is a new solution that might just answer both problems: science crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is a relatively new internet-based method of fundraising. With crowdfunding, individuals post projects that need funding on websites, like RocketHub and Kickstarter, and then solicit contributions for those projects from the general public. Crowdfunding has grown explosively over the past few years as a source of funding in many fields (like arts and technology), with $1.5 billion raised by this method in 2011 alone. The arts-based Kickstarter expects to disburse $150 million this year, more than the National Endowment for the Arts. In the sciences, the British charity Cancer Research UK regularly funds specific cancer-related research projects to the tune of fifty thousand pounds and above.

With the exception of Cancer Research UK, science has been essentially untouched by crowdfunding until recently.  However, given the crowdfunding amounts that have been raised elsewhere, the potential of generating significant amounts of research cash by this method is obvious. It might seem less obvious how science crowdfunding could help close the yawning gap between science and society. To understand the connection, it is important to note that the culture of science itself shares a lot of the blame for the public’s science illiteracy.

It is not news that the culture of science generally frowns upon researchers engaging in science outreach with the wider world (though a recent paper in the journal PLoS ONE lays out the case in depressing detail). Even when science outreach does occur, the focus is often not on the public, but instead on decision-makers – the elite few who most directly move the levers of power.

Why is crowdfunding good news for connecting science and society?

Science crowdfunding changes the equation by adding a powerful new incentive for scientists to engage the public with science: the potential for raising money for research directly from the public. What makes crowdfunding such a powerful potential lever to connect science and society is that the amount of money that can be raised in this way is directly proportional to the size of the audience that has been built. As an example, if we look at the six projects on Kickstarter that each have raised over a million dollars this year, all but one tapped into huge networks of people that the project creators had been building for years. I am the co-organizer of a science crowdfunding effort called the #SciFund Challenge and the results from our own projects show the same thing: money raised depends on the audience that has been built.

So, how do scientists go about building an audience interested in their research? Where does the crowd in crowdfunding come from? A great model lies no further than your radio: your local NPR station. Most of the time, NPR member stations are just pushing out fantastic programming (Fresh Air, I am looking at you). Every so often though, the stations reach out to you to ask for cash to keep the programming rolling. Whether or not you give money though, they still want you listening to the programming.

A very similar model could work well for science crowdfunding. On a regular basis, a scientist would be reaching out with her science message to broader audiences (via public talks, blog posts, and so on). The message of the scientist would not be focussed on money, but rather on compelling stories in science (the scientist’s own research, interesting developments in the scientist’s field, etc.). By regularly reaching out with her science, the researcher would over time build credibility with a growing audience. And every so often, if the scientist reached out to that audience to request funds to keep the research rolling, that audience would respond. How much money could a scientist actually raise for her research this way? The example of Cancer Research UK shows that, if the audience is large, a large amount can be raised.

One way to think of the relationship between audience and crowdfunding potential is a version of the Thousand True Fans Model. Musicians, videomakers, and other artists have used this model for a few years now to figure out how to make a living from their art. The idea behind the model is that only the most committed fraction of your audience will provide the majority of the dollars to keep the art going. Consequently, the goal of the artist is to cater to that fraction and to grow that fraction over time. For science, the Thousand True Fans Model goes a bit differently, because those audience members who aren’t contributing dollars are still incredibly valuable.  All members of a researcher’s audience (contributing or not) are connected to science and those individual connections are essential for closing the gap between science and society.

What would this world look like if every scientist touched a thousand people each year with their science message? How would science-related policy decisions be different if every citizen had a scientist that they personally knew? One thing is for sure: a world with closer connections between scientists and the public would be a better world. And crowdfunding might just help to get us there.

As I mentioned earlier, I am one of the co-organizers of the #SciFund Challenge, a volunteer-run science crowdfunding organization. We train scientists how to run crowdfunding projects, provide community, and also provide some publicity once projects launch. We currently have 75 amazing science crowdfunding projects that are running for the month of May. You can find the projects listed by category at scifundchallenge.org or directly at scifund.rockethub.com.

Jai Ranganathan About the Author: Dr. Jai Ranganathan is a conservation biologist and co-founder of SciFund Challenge. SciFund Challenge is a volunteer-run organization that seeks to close the gap between science and society, by training and encouraging scientists to connect to the public with their science. SciFund Challenge also engages the public with science through science crowdfunding. You can find out more at scifundchallenge.org and by searching for #SciFund on Twitter. Follow on Twitter @jranganathan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 14 Comments

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  1. 1. RubenCorbo 10:51 am 05/23/2012

    This is awesome. I’m glad to see crowdfunding being distributed to do good things. I wonder how vast everything is going to be after things start to take off for the equity based crowdfunding stuff. I know there’s EarlyShares.com and a bunch of other ones already preparing for Jan. 1 to come once the SEC confirm their final rulings of the CROWDFUND Act. This is that perfect opportunity to see what people would invest in and put their money where their mouths are. I think this actually a great thing for pure hearted activists to get involved. I’m actually excited what’s going to happen. I only followed crowdfunding when it was implemented in the music scene like ArtistShare and SellaBand.

    Link to this
  2. 2. mdichristina 11:05 am 05/23/2012

    I also find the crowd-funding efforts of the recently launched Petridish.org interesting.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Bora Zivkovic 11:09 am 05/23/2012

    We have presented both #SciFund and PetriDish here before:

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/network-central/2011/09/19/what-is-scifund-challenge
    and
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/network-central/2012/03/07/what-is-petridish-org

    They differ in many ways – but more the merrier, let the million flowers bloom – each has its own niche and own audience.

    And do not forget Spot.us for journalism!

    Link to this
  4. 4. priddseren 5:31 pm 05/23/2012

    How about we end government grants entirely. Oh that’s right, according to the democrats you are not a real scientist unless you have received a government grant.

    Here is the problem you are having, relying on morons to provide funding. Politicians are morons, just look at all the hell they cause around the world from class warfare, the misery caused by their socialism, the military confrontations, the racism, etc… and you expect these people to understand science? and fund it properly? After all some research really is pointless, yet gets funded.

    Then you get to what is science. Sorry, “consensus” of a few scientists the socialists around the world have designated as the only legitimate experts is not science. Proven facts would be science. Experiments to determine fact, is science. Pet theories backed by gerry rigged computer models, plugged data and statistical equations created to “prove” the theory is not science and most people realize this, so no funding.

    When real science is being proposed or worked on, it tends to eventually get funded.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Bora Zivkovic 6:25 pm 05/23/2012

    Wondering what in this post could possibly have triggered a rightwingnut rant… ;-)

    Link to this
  6. 6. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:39 am 05/24/2012

    #5
    Perhaps the appaling tone of article: this stupid public doesn’t believe in science… but please give us money, money money!

    Link to this
  7. 7. Bee 4:43 am 05/24/2012

    I explained here why this approach has its limits. I’ll copy my summary for your convenience:

    “Crowdfunding science is a good idea to add additional support to underfunded missions or to enable small projects. It is not a good idea to draw upon the public opinion to fund research projects from scratch. It might appear as if public money is put to good use, but that use is likely to be very inefficient and misdirected and doesn’t actually solve any systemic problem.”

    Link to this
  8. 8. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:48 am 05/24/2012

    Crowdfunding raises interesting problem. Will public accept that researchers spend their money, but the resulting drug candidate is protected by patent or sold and the public is excluded from using it unless they fork 1000s of bucks?

    Link to this
  9. 9. Bora Zivkovic 12:09 pm 05/24/2012

    @Bee – I have never heard proponents of crowdfunding state that this will ever be the only source of funding, just a supplementary source, especially for risky research.

    Also, the main focus of this article is that crowdfunding is not so much about the money as it is about connecting researchers to the public, engaging the public with science, teaching researchers to engage and communicate (the aloofness of academia is one of the reasons we get silly comments about imaginary academia-government conspiracies). Money is just the cherry on top.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Bora Zivkovic 12:16 pm 05/24/2012

    @Jerzy v. 3.0. – I doubt anyone will ever use crowdfunding for drug development. (Bio)medical research is quite different and separate from most of the other sciences, and especially clinically relevant stuff costs a lot and is tightly regulated, thus would have to get funded by NIH etc. Crowdfunding is more suited for small, basic science problems.

    Link to this
  11. 11. mir-denny 5:02 am 05/25/2012

    Microryza is another website that also does crowdfunding for science research. However, it is different in that it does not provide hard rewards for donors. The stated mission is very much the same!

    http://www.microryza.com

    Link to this
  12. 12. mtotterman 9:48 pm 05/26/2012

    Great article. I agree that building a stronger link between scientists and the general public will benefit both parties as well as society overall.

    A group of entrepreneurs with technology transfer experience have recently launched an academic crowd funding site in collaboration with Cornell, University of Rochester, Clarkson and RIT, they and are currently funding their first projects related to Autism and Stroke.

    The name of the initiative is Innovocracy and can be found at http://www.innovocracy.org.

    Link to this
  13. 13. cosmos11 1:08 am 07/17/2012

    Great article. We need to help support science in every way possible. http://scienceleap.org provides an additional way to fund scientific organizations. Worth checking out.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Darrylm 3:47 am 06/14/2013

    Cancer research is being crowdfunded atStart A Cure, at http://startacure.com where the cancer survivor community is quite active. I think that stakeholders are an important driver for cancer research funding.

    Link to this

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