Andrew Thaler

CEO at Blackbeard Biologic

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Can Crowdfunding Fill the Science Funding Gap?

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Image: Crowd of people in Times Square on V-J Day / World-Telegram photo by Dick DeMarsico

Science funding is an increasingly competitive game, with funding rates falling into single-digit percentages for some of the largest grant agencies. It’s more and more difficult for early career scientists to win significant grants — especially while rotating through a series of short-term postdoctoral fellowships. Meanwhile, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Patreon, Experiment, and a plethora of others have been surging, with many projects attracting more than $1-million. That’s led scientists to ask the obvious question: Can I use crowdfunding to finance my research?

Well, it’s complicated.

First, my credentials. In the past few years, I have used crowdfunding to finance two small projects —The OpenCTD on RocketHub and Buy David Shiffman a less ugly pair of sunglasses (yes, that is a real project that really funded shark-conservation genetics) on Indiegogo. I also manage a Patreon campaign, which I’ve used to pay my open-access fees on two recent papers and to cover the costs of server hosting for Southern Fried Science, my website on marine science and conservation.

All of those projects are fairly small. For the vast majority of scientists, crowdfunding — in its current form — will not replace major grants from traditional government and NGO sources. But crowdfunding can supplement research efforts. Scrolling through Experiment— a crowdfunding site dedicated tosupporting research projects — reveals that most are raising only a few thousand dollars. But even if the potential payoff is relatively low, there are a few really good reasons to try and crowdfund your science.

Crowdfunding Builds Community. The most successful crowdfunders (in science or otherwise) will tell you that the biggest benefit is in building a community. A crowdfunding campaign can act as a central point to grow and organize a group of people interested in supporting your research.

For projects that require public participation, that can be incredibly valuable. The Kittybiome, one of the most successful research projects on Kickstarter, needed money, but, more important, the researchers needed participants to collect feces from their pet cats to send to the lab. People not only contributed funding for the project, but also the raw samples needed to conduct the research. In return, they learned a little bit more about their pets.

A successful crowdfunding campaign can also make your formal grants more competitive. Being able to point to a large cohort of citizens interested in your work can make your impact statement more compelling, and show the grant agency that there is broad public support for your research.

Crowdfunding Provides Startup Costs for Risky Projects. When we launched The OpenCTD, we were taking a gamble. The idea of building a critical oceanographic instrument for a hundredth of its conventional cost — and doing it open-source to provide unlimited access to researchers and public science groups — was a new and radical idea, with few models of success.

To top it all off, we were ecologists trying to build hardware, rather than engineers. In short, we were simply not competitive for traditional funding routes. The project was risky, and had its fair share of challenges and setbacks over the last three years. But what started as a gamble evolved into a sustainable community of researchers and citizen oceanographers, and has grown larger than we imagined. Many of our core community at Oceanography for Everyone were among the first contributors to the OpenCTD campaign.

Crowdfunding May Be the Only Path. What happens when you’re at an institution that doesn’t allow postdocs to be PIs on grants? Or you can’t seek a formal grant because you only have an honorary position or are — horror of horrors — between contracts?

Science isn’t just a career, it’s a calling, and there are hypotheses that need to be tested, whether or not you’re embedded in the academic establishment. When Lenny Teytelman decided it was time to leave the academy and strike out into the wilderness, he crowdfunded to provide a central repository for crowdsourced research protocols. Now backed by major NGOs and research institutes, crowdfunding provided the bridge between independent research and institutional support.

If any of those fit your research goals, than crowdfunding is definitely a potential pathway forward. But it’s important to be realistic about the kinds of returns you can expect. In its short lifetime, crowdfunding has generally supported projects that cost thousands — and, infrequently, tens of thousands — of dollars. As seed funding, the money is incredibly valuable, but it is far from what is necessary to sustain a research program.

There are also some really bad reasons to try crowdfunding. Looking at the baffling success of projects to make potato salad, robocop statues, and yes, even buying sunglasses for a shark-conservation biologist may give you the incorrect assumption that there’s money out there and you deserve a piece of it. Jumping into crowdfunding because it is trendy — without a clear vision for what you want to get out of it and what you’re willing to put into it — is a recipe for failure.

Crowdfunding may look relatively easy: Just put up a post and watch the contributions roll in (but don’t call them donations unless you’ve got the nonprofit status to back it up.) While a campaign is running, crowdfunding is a full-time job. I’ve spoken to numerous successful science crowdfunders who, in retrospect, realized that they could have put together several grants for major funding agencies for the amount of time and effort they invested in raising a few thousand dollars.

In the next few articles, I’ll get into the gritty details and cover the nuts and bolts of how to set up, launch, manage, and fulfill a successful science crowdfunding campaign.

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