• Crowdfunding

    An Emerging Funding Mechanism for Science Research


    An Emerging Funding Mechanism for Science Research

    Speaker: Jeanne Garbarino (The Rockefeller University)Presented by Science Alliance
    Reported by Hannah Rice | Posted October 9, 2013


    Online crowdfunding has become a popular means to finance ventures ranging from the arts to political campaigns. On September 16, 2013, the Academy's Science Alliance explored crowdfunding as a source of financing for scientific research, hosting Rockefeller University's director of science outreach Jeanne Garbarino and a panel of researchers who have used the strategy. Crowdfunding is attractive when budgets are tight; dwindling grants from traditional sources such the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have led scientists to look for new ways to keep labs operating. It is also popular among young researchers, who may find it especially difficult to secure grant money. Crowdfunding in Academia: An Emerging Funding Mechanism for Science Research highlighted the promises and potential pitfalls of engaging the public to sponsor science.

    Garbarino used crowdfunding to finance a brain-imaging project, NEURODOME, raising over $25 000 on the well-known website Kickstarter. Although public-donation campaigns are an old idea—public radio and telethons are examples—Garbarino pointed out that "the Internet has allowed us to smash both cultural and geographical boundaries" that once limited their scope. We can collaborate with people around the world and draw on existing networks, combining small donations rather than relying on a few large backers.

    Crowdfunding is a very different proposition from grant writing for an audience of scientific peers. To pitch an idea to the public, the science must be readily understandable and the message, succinct and relevant. "Create a narrative," Garbarino advised, "Why should people care about your story? Why should people fund your research?" She pointed to a successful campaign to raise funds for research into how amphetamines affect the brain. The scientists created a short video framing their experiment in the context of popular culture, with stop-motion animation and references to the television show Breaking Bad. The narrative is straightforward and addresses why the research is needed, what it can achieve, and how it will be executed.

    A successful crowdfunding campaign requires effective storytelling, a strong social network, and a practical reward system. (Image courtesy of Jeanne Garbarino)

    Contributing to a crowdfunding campaign appeals to people's desire to be involved in social causes; as investors, donors become stakeholders in the success of the project. They are taking a risk: money is donated during the planning stages and there are no guarantees of success. It is helpful to build in incentives that both attract donors and keep them engaged as the work progresses; for example, by providing updates or sharing results from the lab. One way to increase investment is to create specific, tiered rewards. The most generous donors to NEURODOME had the opportunity to have images from their own brain incorporated into a planetarium-style show illustrating the brain at the cellular level. In the amphetamine project, donors were involved in shaping how the results would be reported to make the work accessible to a general audience.

    Campaigns like this can be very time consuming: it's "a full time job," Garbarino said. Therefore, the payoff from crowdfunding must be worth the cost. It is important to craft a high-impact social media strategy and to develop creative rewards. To be successful, scientists need to be persistent in promoting their work, posting frequent reminders on Twitter and Facebook, contacting journalists, and asking others to publicize the project. "If you want to get something done you have to be a little bit aggressive; you have to be up for that challenge, and you have to strike the right chords."

    There are two models for crowdfunding: all or nothing and keep it all. In both instances campaigns last for a set time period but in the first a project receives no funding unless it reaches its goal. This distinction raises some interesting choices. A keep-it-all strategy may seem preferable, but if the proceeds raised are insufficient there is a responsibility to find extra funds or risk wasting contributions. Garbarino explained that her team chose Kickstarter, an all-or-nothing model, because of its broad support, as well as because the possibility of losing everything provides an extra incentive to donate. This model also ensures that, if successful, the campaign will fund the research in full. There are dozens of platforms for crowdfunding: Garbarino described their recent proliferation as a "mini dot-com-style boom." Some target a particular audience and all incur a fee of about 8%–10%. Kickstarter does not support science research (Garbarino's team could use it because NEURODOME has an educational component), but others such as Petridish and Microryza are science-specific.

    Garbarino discussed why new models for funding science are needed. Government grants, a primary source of research funding, are down considerably because of the recession and, more recently, sequestration. The NIH budget is almost $2 billion smaller this year and there has been a 30% reduction in federal spending on research and development since 2004, correcting for inflation. Garbarino emphasized the impact of these shortages: "[researchers] are chain grant writing; you submit one and the next one is ready to go." Despite the lack of funding, most universities do not meet the deficit. This trend means that some scientists cannot complete research projects or pursue tenure. Clearly, Garbarino said, "the system is not working."

    Funding for science has decreased considerably. Top: Results of the 2013 Nondefense Discretionary Science Survey by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Bottom: American Association for the Advancement of Science graph illustrating the reduction in federal agency funding since 2004. (Images courtesy of Jeanne Garbarino)

    Is crowdfunding a realistic alternative? Successful campaigns demonstrate its potential: in 18 hours, protesters in Turkey raised $53 800 to pay for an Op-Ed in the New York Times; singer Amanda Palmer raised $1.2 million, over ten times her goal, to publicize an independent album; and the television show Veronica Mars raised $6 million ($2 million in the first 11 hours) to fund a movie, in the third most successful Kickstarter campaign to date. "That shows the power of Kickstarter to engage a group with like interests," Garbarino said. Within science, sequencing projects such as uBiome and the American Gut Project have combined crowdfunding with citizen science, relying on direct participation as well as financial contributions from the public. Although she thinks "crowdfunding is not going to replace an RO1 [grant], yet," Garbarino is optimistic that it can help to mitigate deficits, filling out budgets to pay for equipment and salaries, expand existing projects, and sometimes fund complete studies.

    Garbarino addressed some of the challenges crowdfunding presents for science. One is authenticity: online, "anybody can push their own agenda whether it has integrity or not." It might be difficult for nonscientists to evaluate the validity of a study, and with clever marketing funds could be collected for bogus projects. Other questions include whether a university should receive a portion of the proceeds, as it would when grants are awarded; how to protect intellectual property; and whether donations are tax deductible. One audience member asked how advertising science to the public might impact the types of research projects that are proposed and funded. Garbarino suggested that increased university vetting and support, as well as a mechanism for scientific peer review, could help to verify authenticity. Some universities have gone a step further by setting up partnerships with crowdfunding websites; for example, USEED has a platform for the University of Virginia and Pozible has one for Deakin University, Australia. Garbarino suggested that university outreach through crowdfunding could become more widely integrated into development strategy and be used to build partnerships.

    After Garbarino's presentation, a panel of researchers discussed their experiences using crowdfunding for science. The panelists agreed that outreach is a challenge. Montclair State University graduate student Heather Kopsco is using Microryza to fund research into how birds spread the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. She highlighted the need to market research to nonscientists and recommended using news stories to generate interest. She thinks that communicating science to the public can benefit both researchers and the public by improving science literacy.

    BioBus staff scientist Sarah Weisberg used Fundly, a nonprofit-specific platform, to support taking the BioBus mobile microscopy lab to schools (and later set up a crowdfunding page on the project's own website). Weisberg said that it is important to be adaptable: she initially developed funding initiatives for individual schools but found that more people donated to the bus itself and changed her strategy. She cautioned that it is important to carefully consider which perks to offer, choosing rewards people will appreciate and that are not burdensome. The NEURODOME project included small incentives such as a public thank you on the website. The amphetamine project published results online and hosted webinar discussions with funders. Platforms like Microryza feature a lab notes section that is only accessible to funders. Kopsco said that simply making a commitment to open science could be an incentive.

    Cornell University undergraduate Bharathi Sundaresh described her work on an Indiegogo campaign for Weill Cornell's PathoMap project, which aims to sequence the NYC microbiome. She reported that the widespread appeal of the project helped to draw interest among New Yorkers, who use public transport extensively. She and Weisberg both mentioned that it is important to have strong existing networks to launch a campaign and said that email outreach was effective. When asked whether crowdfunding is feasible for science, the panelists agreed that it is, with some limitations. Kopsco thinks that crowdfunding is a good strategy for small projects, but it cannot replace large grants. Sundaresh said that it is useful as a supplement for administrative costs. "It's not as easy as putting a good idea up online and people will give you money," Weisberg said, "you have to prove your worth."

    "Crowdfunding is shaping a new economy," Garbarino concluded. These websites generated $2.7 billion in 2012 and are projected to raise $5.1 billion in 2013: "There is no reason why researchers shouldn't go for it."

    Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.

    Presentations available from:
    Jeanne Garbarino, PhD (The Rockefeller University)
    Sarah Weisberg (BioBus)
    Heather Kopsco (Montclair State University)
    Bharathi Sundaresh (Cornell University)

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