Crowdfunding: An Emerging Funding Mechanism for Science Research
Posted October 09, 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.
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."
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)
Articles and Websites
Cheng D. Science + Crowdfunding: Match or No Match? MIT Center for Civic Media. 2013.
Garbarino J. Crowdfunding: Another Form of Science Outreach. Nature: Soapbox Science. 2013.
Kessler S. Georgia Tech Launches Its Own Crowdfunding Site for Science Research. Fast Company. 2013.
Richman J, Apte Z. Crowdfunding and IRBs: The Case of uBiome. Scientific American. 2013.
Popular Science: Crowdfunding
A collection of articles dealing with crowdfunding science with links to current projects.
A collection of posts dealing with crowdfunding science.
AngelList is a platform for start-up companies.
Fundly is a keep-it-all platform that supports crowdfunding for any project.
Indiegogo is designed to be flexible, so users can opt to keep-it-all or set an all-or-nothing goal.
Kickstarter is the world's largest funding platform for creative projects.
MedStartr is designed specifically for healthcare.
Microryza is a science-specific, all-or-nothing platform.
PETRIDISH is dedicated to funding science research.
Pozible focuses on funding creative projects and ideas.
Rocket Hub is a broad-based platform that supports science research.
USEED is developed specifically for higher education.
Thomas Magaldi, PhD
The New York Academy of Sciences
Thomas Magaldi is the director of Science Alliance at the Academy. Science Alliance provides professional development workshops and courses to teach early career scientists a range of soft and business skills that are essential for all careers. Magaldi also gives seminars on career development and exploration at Science Alliance partner institutions. He holds a PhD in genetics from Yale University and completed a postdoc at the National Cancer Institute, NIH.
Jeanne Garbarino, PhD
The Rockefeller University
Jeanne Garbarino earned her PhD in metabolic biology from Columbia University, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at The Rockefeller University, where she now serves as director of science outreach. When she is not conducting research, Garbarino works as a science communicator, acting as chief editor of Rockefeller's The Incubator blog, co-organizer of SpotOnNYC, biology editor for Double X Science, and director of science outreach for NEURODOME. She is active on multiple social-media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
Montclair State University
Heather Kopsco is a MS candidate and graduate assistant in Montclair State University's Biology and Molecular Biology Department, where she studies ecology and evolutionary biology. Her thesis research focuses on the ecological role birds play in the dissemination of Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease. When she discovered that it would be difficult to secure grant funding for her project within the time constraints of her program, she turned to crowdfunding via Microryza as an alternative funding source. She briefly discusses her decision to crowdfund in an article by the International Business Times on the increasing use of crowdfunding in academia. Her project page is on Microryza, and additional information about her research can be found on Facebook and Twitter.
Bharathi Sundaresh is a third-year undergraduate at Cornell University, working towards a Bachelor's degree in biological sciences and a minor in business. This summer, she worked with a team of undergraduate and PhD students, led by Dr. Chris Mason, to establish the PathoMap project at the Mason lab at Weill Cornell Medical College. PathoMap is a volunteer-driven study of the microbiome of all five boroughs of NYC that will identify the microorganisms present on public surfaces. The team has collected over 1500 swab samples from across NYC and have begun to sequence the bacterial genomes that have been identified. They have created a project page to promote public awareness and encourage New Yorkers to volunteer to participate.
Sarah Weisberg joined the BioBus after completing an undergraduate degree at Harvard University and a Master's degree in cell biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel. She and a team of scientists drive the bus—a 1974 transit bus outfitted with solar panels on the roof and a research-grade microscopy lab inside—to schools, museums, and community centers across the NYC area and the country. Funded in part through crowdsourcing, the BioBus project unites people of all ages and backgrounds, from preschoolers to Nobel laureates, in a common curiosity-driven exploration of the microscopic world.
Hannah Rice is the editorial associate for eBriefings. She also writes for the New York Academy of Sciences Magazine.