Is science crowdfunding really about hustling?

The Hustler
The Hustler is a great movie, but is it really the model for science crowdfunding?

A few days ago, Ethan Perlstein provided some guidance over at the Microryza blog about how to succeed at science crowdfunding. His bottom line? The secret is to hustle, hustle, hustle during a crowdfunding campaign to get the word out and to get media attention. With all respect to Ethan, if all researchers running campaigns follow his advice, then that’s the end for science crowdfunding. And that would be a tragedy because science crowdfunding has the potential to solve one of the key problems of our time: the giant gap between science and society.

Now, Ethan is certainly no slouch when it comes to crowdfunding. After all, he raised 25,000 dollars for his research in a breakthrough crowdfunding campaign that raised the bar for all of us who think about science crowdfunding. And his guidance on crowdfunding is based on a careful analysis of the data generated by his own campaign. His point that you need to promote like crazy during a campaign is dead on.

But if scientists focus solely on becoming unstoppable promotion machines, then it’s curtains for science crowdfunding.  Why is that, you ask? Because science crowdfunding only makes sense within a larger context of enhanced science outreach to the public. To really succeed, scientists who plan on crowdfunding must also have a long-term public outreach plan.

Why does outreach matter so much for science crowdfunding? Because outreach is ultimately the product that scientists can provide and, in crowdfunding land, it is all about product delivery.  Just take a look at the King Kong of the crowdfunding world, Kickstarter, with 274 million dollars crowdfunded in 2012 alone. Now, Kickstarter focuses on “creative projects” (their words), not science, but looking at their projects is still instructive. Take a gander at their ten biggest projects, each of which raised well upwards of two million dollars. The projects are really varied – everything from smartwatches to video games – but the one thing they have in common is that each is focused on developing a specific product that can be delivered to each contributor.

If we step away from these monstro-projects and take a look at the everyday Kickstarter projects, the story is the same. I just looked at their recently funded projects and all of the 20 most recently funded projects are tightly focused on building a product that each contributor can have (your mileage may vary depending on when you take a look).  Mind you, the product doesn’t have to be physical. For example, plenty of dance companies have raised funds in this way to produce a non-physical product: namely a performance that contributors could attend. But there is almost always a product.

Science crowdfunding lives in here.

What is the product in science crowdfunding? There are some cases where a scientist’s research centers on something that can be directly given to contributors. For example, the current money-leaders in the world of science crowdfunding are uBiome and American Gut, each of which raised over $300,000. The research focus of both projects is the truly astonishing number of bacterial species that live in and on us. Both projects were able to provide a specific product to contributors that is tightly integrated to the research. Namely, an analysis of the bacterial species found within each contributor who contributed above a certain threshold.

For most scientists though (like me, an ecologist), their research doesn’t immediately translate into something that can be shipped to contributors. But scientists like me still have an incredibly valuable product that can we provide: engagement with the science.

What does engagement with the science mean? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean “give me 20 bucks and I’ll mention you in the acknowledgements of my paper”. It doesn’t mean “hand over some cash and I’ll send you a copy of my super-technical scientific article when it is published in three years”.

What engagement with the science does mean is a personal connection between the research (and researcher) and a broad audience. The only way for a scientist to build that connection with an audience is do outreach on a frequent basis. Outreach can be done in all sorts of ways (like public talks, blog posts, podcasts, or youtube videos, for example). The only thing that really matters is that a scientist reaches out in a frequent, consistent way. By doing this kind of outreach, a scientist can build an audience that passionately cares about the research – in fact, an audience that cares enough to help fund that research.

The real secret to science crowdfunding success is in your radio.

So, where is the evidence that outreach is a “product” that will lead to fundraising success? Well, it turns out that there is some fabulous evidence very close by. It’s in your closest radio in fact: namely, NPR. Think of NPR’s model. They put out great, free programming all the time, simply because they think that we ought to listen to it. By doing so, they build huge credibility and connection with a ever growing audience. Every so often, they ask their audience to contribute to help keep the programming going and that audience responds.

Now, I need to mention that Ethan is actually following this exact outreach model with his own crowdfunding activities. He has expended serious resources to build an amazing website for his own research that is incredibly innovative in its approach to science outreach.  I just wish that he would mention his fantastic site more often, when he is giving strategic advice about how to succeed with science crowdfunding.

Because, by only focusing on the mechanics of the campaign itself (and not talking about all of the necessary outreach), there lurks a danger that could sink science crowdfunding. Positive connections to an audience are important for crowdfunding success in any field, but they are especially important for scientists, since  all we have to offer (basically) is a personal connection to the science. If scientists omit the outreach and just contact audiences when they want money, that will go a long way to poisoning the connections between science and the public. Science crowdfunding has barely gotten started and already I hear continuous complaints about audience exasperation with the nonstop fundraising appeals. The reason for this audience fatigue is that few scientists have done the necessary building of connections with an audience before they started banging the drum for cash. Imagine how poisonous the atmosphere will become if many more outreach-free scientists aggressively cold call (or cold e-mail or cold tweet) the universe about their fundraising pleas.

Science and the public holding hands on the beach, all thanks to outreach.

For scientists, the bottom line is that there is no substitute and no shortcuts to the slow, hard work of building a relationship with an audience that cares about the research. And this is actually where the real potential of science crowdfunding comes in. By providing a strong incentive for a long-term outreach program (since only long-term outreach can deliver the audiences that can bring large research dollars), science crowdfunding brings a brand new argument to academia about why outreach should be valued. We really are at the cusp here of closing the gap between science and society, driven by these brand new incentives. It would be an unbelievable tragedy if this once-in-a-lifetime chance to break the academic ivory tower was destroyed by lots of scientists jumping the gun on crowdfunding, before doing outreach first.

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