A Shock to the Science Crowdfunding Ecosystem

Jarrett Byrnes

The idea of using crowdfunding (or using social networks in combination with microfinancing, as it was known 5 minutes ago) for science has been for several years now, and yet, with some notable exceptions, why has it not caught on as a nice direct line of funding for scientists? Is crowdfunding for science DOA already? Or is there something that science-crowdfunding efforts have so far missed?

The current science crowdfunding atmosphere. Image from post-telegraph.com.

I think not. There are a number of science crowdfunding sites out there. Jai and I checked them out, hoping that they could provide a model for the #SciFund challenge, or even a platform for us to use. While some, such as Cancer Research UK were tremendously successful, with a bustling roster of projects and exciting public appeals, many others were somewhat disheartening. Most science crowdfunding sites appeared to be the digital ghost towns, with e-tumbleweeds blowing through. Those that even had projects, instead of just grandiose claims and press interviews, contained a small smattering of unfunded projects whose “asks” were full of disciplinary jargon and funding targets could be quite large. (yes, I realize there were some exceptions, but, generally…) Sites with transposed NIH or NSF proposals seemed to just not make the cut. However, even these sites had some fascinating ideas – such as supplying seed money or an applied focus. But even these seemed not to be enough to make crowdfunding for general science successful.

So the state of online crowdfunding organizations for science seems to be not so good. Contrast this to the vibrant communities around sites like rockethub and kickstarter. These sites are general – there are projects for film, literature, radio, journalism, community service, and more. So, users see a wide variety of different projects, and appeals are targeted towards a general audience. Funding targets are often small. And these sites are tied directly into social networking applications – Facebook, twitter, google plus. So it’s easy to send an ask to everyone from your colleagues to your friends to your grandmama.

From looking at science crowdfunding sites versus general crowdfunding sites, I think there are a few lessons as to what can lead to success – lessons that we would like to embrace as a part of the #SciFund challenge.

Crowdfunded Science? Meet the #SciFund Challenge

1) If you build it, they will not come. One needs a larger strategy to attract a broad audience – both at the site and individual level. Sometimes this may even mean joining up with larger more established organizations. Heck, this is why the #SciFund challenge will be using an established crowdfunding site, rather than inventing something new.

2) Microfunding may, for now, mean microprojects. You will not fund your million dollar lab renovation here. But, a small exciting high risk project has a higher chance of success. And we know what success breeds. More success! So, collecting a number of small intriguing projects in one place creates an atmosphere that can lead to more projects being funded. Indeed, this may even lead to BIG projects becoming more likely to be funded.

3) Fun and excitement is actually key. Sites like kickstarter and rockethub are, let’s face it, FUN. Their design is snappy, and they make you feel like you’re part of something hot and special.

So, an active community, microfunding targets, and excitement. Not things that we typically think about when funding science, but, in a crowdfunding world, perhaps they are vital to success?

One reason Jai and I started the #SciFund challenge is because it is a natural way to satisfy all of these conditions. We’re hoping that, just by virtue of holding this crowdfunding derby, we can get some great science funded. Let’s give crowdfunded science that vital push to birth it into the world as a real viable source for future research!

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  1. Good article – and its key points are useful to all crowdfunding projects. I agree with your 3 main points
    (a) Know your target audience and utilise social networks outside of your field.
    (b) Realistic targets, perhaps seed or start-up, which make both financial and value sense to your potential donors.
    (c) Make it fun – which makes the projects accessible and interesting to the non specialist. Creatives and community groups are experienced in selling their message and engaging wide audiences. Scientists can learn from excellent examples of public engagement with science in putting their pitches together.

    One success is SETIStars http://info.setistars.org/about/ which achieved funds beyond its target. Like Cancer Research UK these are high profile organisations with wide appeal and celebrity backing.

    Keep an eye on @fundageek which is due to launch soon.