Crowd Funding Your Research
Although perhaps more familiar as a method of funding computer game development, medical bills or the production of new gadgets, crowd funding is increasingly being used to fund academic pursuits, including scientific research (Vachelard et al. 2016), arts projects or even salaries for individuals.
In times gone by, great artists (e.g. the composers Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, the artists Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci) had wealthy, usually aristocratic, patrons who supported their work with money, gifts and introductions. Although such relationships are rare these days, harnessing the power of the crowd can provide a modern day ‘patronage’ for scientific and artistic endeavours.
Crowd Funding in Science
Although early days, crowd funding is increasingly being used to fund projects in science—particularly those with wide public appeal.
Dr Tiffany Kosch is a postdoctoral research fellow at the One Health Research Group at James Cook University. Her research area is the genetics of immunity of Corroboree frogs to a fungal disease, called chytridiomycosis, which has led to the precipitous decline of many frog species and contributed to the extinction of a number of others worldwide. Her research fits into this category.
In 2016, Dr Kosch and her colleagues used the platform experiment.com to finance a US$4500 project titled ‘Can we stop amphibian extinction by increasing immunity to the frog chytrid fungus?’ Not only was the project successfully funded, the research group exceeded their project goal by approximately US$1500.
Dr Kosch found the experience very enjoyable, although she doesn’t see it as likely to a replace more traditional methods of funding for large scale projects or organisations.
Another scientist with an interest in the environment, Dr Euan Ritchie, is senior lecturer in ecology at Deakin University. His research interests involve predator–prey interactions, with the aim of better understanding and managing biodiversity.
Dr Ritchie and his colleagues have crowd funded two projects through Pozible.com. The first—‘Discovering Papua New Guinea’s Mountain Mammals’—raised $21,913, with a target of $20,000, and the second—‘The Big Roo Count’—came in well over the target of $15,000, eventually raising $20,555.
Crowd Funding the Arts
The arts are also represented by successful crowd funding projects. Sayraphim Lothian is a full-time artist with a Masters of Arts in Public Places. In 2014, she travelled to Christchurch, New Zealand, courtesy of crowd funding, to place 124 soft Kakapo (an endangered flightless New Zealand Parrot) in public places for the general public to find. Although her target was relatively modest ($5500), and included a third of all funds being donated to charity, Sayraphim exceeded her target.
Although Sayraphim was a fairly early adopter of this technology, we are likely to see more crowd funding of the arts in future. The Australian Cultural Fund, a crowd funding website specifically for Australian artists, has government support through Creative Partnerships Australia. Importantly, this not-for-profit organisation provides tax-deductible status for donations over $2 by Australian tax payers, which can only encourage more donations.
Ongoing Sponsorship through Crowd Funding
Another model is the website patreon.com. This platform allows donors to provide a monthly stipend to their favoured ‘creator’ to provide a regular income. Donors sponsor creators in diverse fields including the arts (examples include videos, comics, films, writing, animation, dance), science and education. Paul Fenwick, a self-described ‘Benevolent Troublemaker and Freedom Loving Scientist’ has used patreon.com to fund his work on an open software project, the Comprehensive Kerbal Archive Network.
Although as a software engineer, Paul could earn more money doing his regular job, or ‘writing software for hedge funds’. As he puts it, he used Patreon to allow him to work on projects for the public good, while still receiving some compensation.
Easy Grant Money?
However, it’s not quite as simple as setting up a website and sitting back while the funds roll in. ‘A lot of people go into crowd funding thinking it is an easy way to make money. It’s not. It requires a lot of hard work. It was as much, if not more work [than traditional grant application writing] for the communication aspect’, notes Dr Ritchie.
‘If you factor in the time required to raise money using crowd funding, it is not a very cost effective way to fund a project … You’d actually probably run at a loss in some cases, if you factored in your time.’
Paul agrees there is a balance between time spent raising awareness and consequently funds, and time spent actually getting the work done. ‘If I wanted to make a living from crowdfunding, I’d be spending a lot of time telling people about my crowdfunding, and less time doing whatever it is that people are crowdfunding me for’, says Paul.
How Much Money Can You Expect?
Generally, the amount of money raised using crowd funding is relatively modest, with the median amount raised on experiment.com approximately $3500 (Vachelard et al. 2016). In Paul’s case, patreon.com backers were enough to ‘pay my rent, which was nice’.
This situation might change, as crowd funding becomes more popular, well known and accepted. Although uncommon, some science-based projects have raised more than A$140,000 or even, in one case, over US$1.3 million for the American Gut Project.
So Why Fund a Project Using Crowd Funding?
An unexpected bonus noted by both Dr Ritchie and Dr Kosch was that using crowd funding allowed direct immediate contact with the public about their projects. ‘It was great getting to interact with people that were interested in my research, and I really like the idea of giving the public a choice over what research they want to fund as it helps to foster their interest in science’, relates Dr Kosch.
The reason Dr Ritchie used crowd funding was mainly for this reason, noting that ‘to get the money you really have to create an awareness of an issue with the general public … If they are interested in what you are setting out to achieve they will fund you. You carry them along on the way with you, which … is how science should be, because most science … is funded by the general public … so communicating what it is you are doing and why I think is a really important thing to do.’
Does it Count for University Promotion?
Unfortunately, to count towards promotion, universities currently have a strong preference for funding to be sourced from a key research council, such as the Australian Research Council in Australia, or the National Science Foundation in the USA (O'Donnell 2014).
However, in universities, crowd funding can raise the profile of the individual academic, publicly, and within the faculty and provide very valuable networking and publicity.
Further, the crucial seed funding provided allows those who’ve previously never won a grant to be able to prove their ability to bring funds into their institution.
In the case of more unusual projects, crowd funding platforms such as Patreon can provide income for people who might lack other sources of support. Paul relates, ‘People can get paid for all manner of things which don’t exist in the traditional labour market. I’m particularly fond of backing political activists and independent journalists; they’re making the world a better place, but they can hardly opt-out of capitalism while doing so’.
Elements of a Successful Crowd Funded Project
Jonathan O’Donnell writes for the blog ‘The Research Whisperer’. He is so interested in crowd funding of research that he is undertaking … well … research into the crowd funding of research, which is bizarrely circular (just wait until he crowd funds his own research!).
When examining this burgeoning field, he hypothesises that sound social media skills and adept research communication are key skills in successfully raising funds. Fundraisers need to be able to pitch their projects at the appropriate level, build networks using social media, communicate with traditional media (e.g. radio and print), be able to make short videos and also, perhaps most importantly, last the distance throughout the fundraising campaign and beyond.
Spreading the Word
Spreading the word is very important to generate a buzz, and ultimately, funds. Dr Ritchie used social media such as Facebook and Twitter, finding that direct tweets to journalists were most effective in generating media coverage.
Dr Kosch used similar methods, noting that media releases through the university, which were picked up by the national news media, were the most effective way of spreading the word in her case. In Paul’s case, he also used social media, Reddit and the Kerbal Space Program forums.
Targeting Your Message
Being targeted in your message is important. ‘Just jumping on Twitter and randomly tweeting about your project to strangers, not everyone’s going to pick that up, whereas if you tweet to someone who is interested in what you are doing, they are more likely to share it’, explains Dr Ritchie.
In Dr Ritchie’s case, he scored a Twitter home run by getting the well-known comedian Stephen Fry, who has a Twitter following of many millions (12.4 million at the time of writing), to tweet about the project. Stephen Fry is well known for his interest in conservation, including tree kangaroos, and Dr Ritchie approached him initially though his media team.
Although Stephen Fry retweeting the project was a social media coup, it didn’t result in an obvious upswing in funding as a result of the tweet, ‘just because you share it with celebrities, it [won’t] automatically take off and … get lots of money … at the end of the day, where the money is coming from is largely from people that you know, close contacts and people who have a shared interest’, reveals Dr Ritchie, who also advises targeting specific groups that are interested in the research area; in his case, he targeted a local conservation group, the Victorian Field Naturalists. ‘Not only may members of these groups help you directly with funds, but they will help you spread the word’, suggests Dr Ritchie.
Should You Reward your Backers?
Slightly more labour-intensive funding platforms ‘reward’ funders for higher donations. In Dr Ritchie’s case, rewards involved sharing images of the research ‘which wasn’t too laborious’. Dr Ritchie’s kangaroo project also provided some physical rewards, such as coffee cups with project logos.
‘It is a time-consuming process and a costly process’, says Dr Ritchie, who also felt conflicted generating ‘more stuff’, particularly for an ecological project, ‘but it is a culture of crowd funding where some donors will expect rewards ... that’s where you can get creative with what you can reward people with … experiences might not be as hard to do. One of the things we did was, promise to give a public talk for large donations,’ which was more time effective than mailing out hundreds of items.
Dr Kosch did not ‘reward’ her funders in the traditional crowd funding sense, but did provide bimonthly updates on research progress. In the case of Sayraphim’s project, her rewards involved hand-sewing soft kakapo sculptures for 35 of her backers, increasing her artistic workload substantially, as she had already committed to creating 124 soft sculptures as the major part of the project.
What is the Future of Crowd Funding?
A criticism of crowd funding is that with the increase in projects that are successfully crowd funded, the government might decrease its own public funding of science and the arts. ‘I don’t think that holds up’, argues Dr Ritchie, who feels that increasing the public’s awareness of what scientists do, and why, might cause the public to be more interested in investing in science and research.
Being transparent with the public about the cost of science and the arts may also generate public pressure for politicians to support more generous funding of science and the arts.
Neither Dr Ritchie nor Dr Kosch see crowd funding as likely to replace traditional public funding of research. Both seeing it as an addition, or complementary source of funding. ‘I guess it fills some of the void and funds things that would otherwise never be funded’, comments Dr Ritchie.
Both Dr Ritchie and Dr Kosch are interested in funding more research through crowd funding. The outlook for artists is also bright: Sayraphim has gone on to crowd fund other projects, in one case tripling her project aim by raising over $12,000 dollars.
‘I’d love to do more crowd funded projects’, says Dr Ritchie, adding, ‘And not because of the money side of things, but more because of the excitement of going to the public and talking about the science I do and why it’s important. And getting that feedback [from the public] saying “This is fantastic” … It’s quite amazing … It’s really inspiring.’
Read more about crowd funding in Australia on the https://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/tag/crowdfunding/
O'Donnell, Jonathan. 2014. 'Worth more than Money.' https://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/crowdfunding-advantages/#more-2967.
Vachelard, Julien, Thaise Gambarra-Soares, Gabriela Augustini, Pablo Riul and Vinicius Maracaja-Coutinho. 2016. 'A Guide to Scientific Crowdfunding.' PLOS Biology 14 (2):e1002373. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002373.