October 14, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Crowdfunding Science

This is guest post by Mike S. Schäfer, Professor of Science Communication at the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research (IPMZ) and Director of the Center for Higher Education and Science Studies at the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

Heather Richards was short of $3000, and she could still not realize her research project. The marine biologist from San Francisco State University in the US wanted to analyze how marine animals consume plastic particles of which there are more and more in the oceans of the world. But to do so, she needed additional laboratory materials, and her own university was not able to fund them for her. Therefore, Heather Richards presented her project on experiment.com, a crowdfunding platform. She described the importance of her plans and her work, said she needed $3000 to fund it, and within a few weeks, she had received $3247 from 47 donors.

Cases like these are not isolated instances any more. More and more researchers have turned to crowdfunding platforms like experiment.com, petridish.org, medstartr.com or, in the German-speaking world, sciencestarter.de in recent years. Crowdfunding is an “internet-based method of fundraising in which individuals solicit contributions for projects on specialized crowdfunding websites[. The] focus is on gathering many small donations[, and projects] run over a limited timeframe” (Wheat et al. 2013: 71). In these cases the money does not come from the usual institutional funders like national science foundations, endowments or state agencies, but from the ‘crowd’ – individual internet users who typically donate small sums for a project, but who, in sum, can amass considerable amounts of money together.

Crowdfunding is nowadays used in many areas: to fund products or prototypes, art projects or literature, movies or journalism. In addition, this model of financing has also found its place in science: hundreds of scientific projects can be found on crowdfunding platforms, and some of them have collected considerable sums of money. The space telescope “Arkyd“, for example, received $1.5 million in crowdfunding money last year.

Hopes and fears

But deep-rooted hopes and fears are connected to crowdfunding, which are currently discussed in the scientific community, in journals like Science, Nature, or The Lancet, among others. Optimists argue that crowdfunding is a unique chance for early-career scientists to learn to acquire research funding early on. They emphasize that this is becoming more and more important in times of scarce resources, and with the increasingly importance of third-party funding. Some even believe that crowdfunding could alleviate some of the problems that beset the current system for research funding. They highlight that currently, funding tends to go to senior researchers from reputable institutions for rather conventional projects, while crowdfunding allows the broader public to have a say in research funding and therefore contribute to ‘democratising’ it.

There are, however, concerns about crowdfunding which are mostly connected to quality control. After all, science has developed and established its own mechanisms for quality control, which are seen as being under threat when it comes to crowdfunding. When anonymous Internet users can decide upon research funding, the medical journal The Lancet argued there is a danger that “panda bear science” gets funded – i.e. research that is cute and appealing to a lot of people, but not necessarily scientifically substantial.

Research on crowdfunding science

So far, research on crowdfunding of scientific projects is lacking. Some initial analyses have now shown that the hopes and concerns highlighted above are partially true. When looking at scientific projects that aim to acquire crowdfunding, clear patterns emerge: They are mostly smaller projects, aiming for sums around $3000 to $4000. In doing so, they clearly lag behind the six-figure sums that ‘regular’ projects acquire from established research funders like the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) or the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

Conversely, the success rate is considerably higher when it comes to crowdfunding. While national science foundations fund less than 50% of the applications they receive – and often considerably less -, two thirds of scientific crowdfunding projects are funded. On average, they have 40 donors, which usually donate between 50 and $100. Applicants are typically individual scientists, mainly young researchers who try to fund research for their doctoral thesis or other projects.

But what type of projects actually get funded? A study just published by the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research (IPMZ) at the University of Zurich has analyzed 371 scientific crowdfunded projects from eleven different platforms. Findings show that a few distinct factors are crucial for success on crowdfunding platforms: Firstly, projects are successful if they are presented on crowdfunding platforms that specialize in crowdfunding science. Platforms like experiment.com or sciencestarter.de are obviously worthwhile for scientific applicants, much more so than generalized platforms like kickstarter.com for Indiegogo.com. Secondly, it is important that projects are extensively visualized, using pictures, videos or animations, and that they are humorously presented. Thirdly, it is crucial that potential donors can donate money easily and securely, and that they don’t have to reveal too many personal details about themselves.

By contrast, indicators of the projects’ or applicants’ scientific quality – like the academic titles of the applicants, the complexity or length of the project descriptions, awards or testimonials by well-known colleagues – do not play a measurable role in crowdfunding success.

These results seem to confirm suspicions of “panda bear science” and may raise further concerns about crowdfunding – especially as applicants are young scientists who could be socialized into a problematic way of research funding and doing research. And yet, it is also worth noting that crowdfunding science is still a marginal phenomenon financially. All 371 crowdfunding projects that were analyzed in the IPMZ study acquired a total of $1.5 million – i.e. the equivalent of a large grant in the social sciences and a small one in the natural sciences.

Dr. Mike S. Schäfer is Professor of Science Communication at the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research (IPMZ) and Director of the Center for Higher Education and Science Studies at the University of Zürich. Together with Julia Metag et al., he has just published the article “Selling Science 2.0. What Scientific Projects Receive Crowdfunding Online?“ in Public Understanding of Science. Watch this video to learn more!


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