Moving Beyond a Social-Networks-Only Picture of Science Crowdfunding

Yesterday, Terry McGlynn over at one of my favorite blogs, Small Pond Science made some rather interesting and provocative comments about souring on crowdfunding for science due to his perception that it was all about one’s personal social networks. While personal social networks were a piece of the pie as discussed in our paper, it’s not the whole pie.

And as have mentioned repeatedly, our secret agenda behind science crowdfunding is to get scientists out beyond their immediate circles (many academic) to connect broader audiences to their work.

So, I launched into a lengthy comment – and in writing, really put to electronic paper a number of thoughts that have been swirling in my head – some covered in the paper and on this blog, and some that I think we’re going to have to test in future rounds. So I thought I’d cross-post my comment here as a source of discussion, and to encourage y’all to go read Terry’s post and comment yourselves!:

So, Terry, I wanted to push back a bit. I think in our zeal to say, “Expand the audience for your work! For science!” perhaps one of the more fascinating messages got lost. And that is – it’s NOT all about social networking. Or rather, personal social networking.

Often when we hear the phrase, “Audience for your work” or think about crowdfunding, we immediately think friends and family – immediate social networks. Honestly, if that’s all that people rely on, their science crowdfunding will be a failure. Maybe it can get into the low thousands at best if they have a well-heeled social network, but it would stop there.

Why? Well, relying on your personal social network is ultimately not scalable. Unless you get out there and glad-hand everyone you see or find a long-lost family you didn’t know you had, you’re not going to be able to build that network much larger.

And, besides, this is only one part of our overall path diagram in Figure 8. To rely on this pathway alone is not tenable as a long-term strategy for making this work, nor does it achieve our ‘secret goal’ at #SciFund (which we have always been pretty open about) for crowdfunding being the carrot that gets scientists to build larger bridges with society.

So what does work in terms of scalability? How do we achieve these goals? What is it that your students can begin to build now, and that you, an entrenched researcher, have much more access to and hence potential for higher crowdfunding success?

1) Network generated by outreach activities: This can be online network (e.g., Twitter followers) or offline network for which you have gotten contact information (or maintained contact with the organization that gave you the opportunity to do the outreach). This can be anything from museum lectures to local Nerd Nites. Build and cultivate your local audience. Become, as Craig McClain calls it, a “nerd of trust” for the community around you, and keep them aware of what you are doing.

In many ways, the further you go in your academic career, the bigger advantage you should have here. You have the time to cultivate your professional persona, time to get it out there, time to become involved with local opportunities to become a community leader or source of information on a topic.

2) Non-Govermental Organizations: As this is a ‘eyeballs’ game, to some extent, how do you explode out well beyond the reach of your current network? We found (and discuss) many scientists who can make links to NGOs of any stripe – from conservation organizations to advocacy groups to interest groups are able to quickly expand network reach if those NGO contacts translate into them in turn contacting their own membership base. This has happened in a few projects so far, and where it happens, it’s powerful. Again, this is somewhere that a professor, or someone who works to connect their research to groups outside of the lab, has a lot of power and agency. You are known and trusted. For students who are part of on-campus or off-campus organizations who are either interested in their research or supporting those students (e.g., URM student groups, etc) there is also the benefit of these organizations having connections to still other programs or funders who might be interested in the work. So, again, a lot of opportunity here that comes out beyond just a social or even outreach generated network. It’s not one we quantified very well in our surveys to date, as it’s blipped up larger and larger as we’ve gone forward. We hope to have better numbers on this in the future.

Your social network is only one piece of the puzzle. How can you either a) build many connections to other people in the world or b) build connections to organizations that have connections to many people?
The strength of those connections is contingent on YOUR ability to connect your work to the people you communicate with.

3) Media – I have to say, we were shocked at the strong connection to number of journalists contacted. We really thought that people would just be shrugged off. But this was not always the case. Media is a powerful tool to reaching a much wider audience than one could anyway – also making connections to organizations with wider membership that might pass it on to their own lists. We did not quantify whether people were contacting media in collaboration with their university, but anecdotally that seemed to be common (we’ll check into that in the future – science in progress!) which may have increased success rates. To get a journalist to cover your work, you need to be able to make it and your story compelling. Again – it’s outreach and connecting your work outside of the Academy. It’s something that you, as faculty, have a much greater ability to do than your students, but if you support your students in this effort, this is a great teaching opportunity in terms of the importance of outreach and how to do it right.

4) Citizen Science – this is something for which we have waaay too low of a sample size to test, although we talk about it in our discussion. The three biggest science crowdfunding projects to date have all had very significant citizen science components. Send in your own microbial samples! Take some time as an astronomer on a space telescope! (or on a lower funding level, go tag sharks!) These are all highly successful projects that directly involved people in doing the research. A Citizen Science campaign is no easy beast, implying that it’s one that a PI would need to work on with their students (or have a grad student as the primary leader with the vision and followthrough to make it happen). But, it’s the easiest to use to make a direct connection between science and people. If it’s a project you think folk will want to do – crowdfunding or no – and you’re going to do the outreach work to promote it anyway, why not incorporate crowdfunding as one of those outreach platforms?

So, I hope this addresses the immediate social network issue. There are a lot of successful pathways to crowdfunding. The thing they really have in common is being able to find a way to get the compelling story of your science to a broad audience, and then engaging with that audience to bring in funds for your work.