Last month, we provided a general introduction to crowdfunding sites for science, why scientists are choosing to fund their research through these platforms, and these sites’ plans for the future. Here in part two, we explore the challenges, more of the benefits, and how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign.
While crowdfunding has shown it can have an important impact in science, both researchers and those involved in running the sites stress that it’s not a magic solution. The method mostly raises fairly small amounts, compared with the funding provided by much larger government grants. And, in most cases, it’s not as simple as just posting a project, sitting back, and watching the money flow in.
“It is quite hard to raise money for projects,” said Natalie Jonk, founder of the UK-based crowdfunding site Crowd.Science. “A lot of the things that make projects successful are not necessarily the project itself. It’s often the scientist’s ability to communicate what they’re doing and reach people and be really proactive—so, marketing, essentially.”
Because crowdfunding research often doesn’t result in backers getting a tangible reward, such as a cool new gadget, attracting backers from among the general public can be challenging. Giancarlo Barone, a postdoctoral researcher with 12 years of experience in cancer research, found that to be a key reason he didn’t meet the funding goal for his campaign on FutSci, another science-related crowdfunding platform in the UK. His project aimed to create an antibody review website called antYbuddY. com, which would provide high-quality reviews to help researchers avoid wasting time and money on poor-quality antibodies.
“I had nothing to offer my backers in return. Well, when I say ‘nothing,’ I really mean nothing physical and, more to the point, something that would belong to them outside of the workplace,” Barone explained. “So, while my campaign was very positive and successful in terms of creating a presence and following, it was clearly not enough to raise the funds required.”
The breadth of the audience Barone was targeting was also an issue.
“My target backer was very niche, and restricted to scientists who use antibodies,” he said. “If I was trying to crowdfund to investigate the role of X in breast cancer, then I could readily widen my target audience to everyone who gives to cancer research.”
Some areas of science have it easier than others when it comes to crowdfunding. Jason Schein, the executive director of the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute, found that out when he started crowdfunding paleontological digs on US-based Experiment.com a couple of years ago.
“Paleontology has a bit of an advantage in something like this because it’s not rocket science, everybody gets it, everybody’s interested in it at least until they’re five years old,” Schein said. “Everyone goes through a dinosaur phase. It’s perfect for something like crowdfunding.”
The reward he was able to offer backers—the chance to take part in a dinosaur dig—was also a key aspect of his campaigns’ successes. His most recent Experiment.com campaign to fund the institute’s 2017 field expedition, for example, raised $41,827—2,707 percent of its goal.
“I think people…are wanting to get more from their vacations,” he said. “There are plenty of people who just want to go lie on the beach and that’s fine, but the people who are doing these eco-tourism or science-themed vacations [are] doing it because they want to get something out of the experience and develop as a person.”
He adds that the fact his group’s dig wasn’t just for fun, but will actually contribute to science, was another factor that attracted backers to his campaign.
“These specimens are going to a museum and will be researched by students and ourselves,” Schein said. “People have specifically chosen our dig over others because of the citizen science aspect.”
Traditional grants vs. crowdfunding
But is crowdfunding more or less work than going after grants? Again, it depends on the research, but most scientists agree that managing a crowdfunding campaign is hard work, yet different work from writing grants, and while it can be frustrating, it can also be more rewarding.
“I am a full-time postdoc, and full-time dad to four very active young boys,” Barone said. “My biggest challenge was sleep deprivation and spending less time with my wife and kids [on] the weekend. All my campaigning had to be done in my spare time, which was after work, early mornings, and weekends. It was pretty relentless for six months but my wife was very supportive.”
Susan Culican, an associate professor and director of the ophthalmology residency program at the Washington University School of Medicine, agrees that managing a campaign involves being ready at all hours to answer questions and interact with those interested in the project.
“If somebody asks a question at seven o’clock at night…you’ve got to answer it right now,” she said. “So, you have to be on top of things. It’s not a lot of time; it’s lots of little bits of time instead of big chunks of time.”
Ruth Morgan, founder and director of the University College London Centre for the Forensic Sciences, added that the typical crowdfunding audience is a lot more diverse than panels that review grant applications, and it’s more difficult to determine what will click with the general public. “If you’re trying to run a crowdfunding campaign, you’ve got to really think as laterally as possible and think of all the different angles and who might be willing to support you and where your message is going to land well.” She said that with traditional grant applications, the process and the way applications are assessed is clearly stated. There is also a larger community of researchers who have gone through the process before who can provide advice and feedback.
“In crowdfunding, you’re very rarely doing the same things again and again; you’re trying lots of different things,” she said. “You can’t chart your progress in quite the same way, so you never quite know what’s going to have impact and what isn’t before you try it. I certainly learned new skills that I didn’t have before.”
However, those interested in crowdfunding aren’t completely without guidance. All the science-specific crowdfunding platforms offer tips and assistance, both online and by phone, to help researchers through the process. And there’s a growing community of scientists who have “been there, done that” and are more than willing to share what worked for them in their campaigns.
Schein, for example, has become an unofficial expert in crowdfunding paleontology projects. A couple of years ago, Experiment.com ran a grant challenge in which they recruited several campaigns with the same general theme, and the top three crowdfunding campaigns received extra money from the site. Schein was hired to run the paleontology grant challenge, recruiting the projects and helping researchers through the process.
“One of the things that I told them all the time is, it’s far easier and less time-consuming than writing grant proposals, but it is work,” he said. “It’s a lot of online work. You’ve got to put in the legwork on Facebook and Twitter—you have to get the word out there. Basically, it’s about volume. The more people you get to lay their eyes on your site on Experiment. com, the more likely it is to get enough donations.”
Another important part is to make the language accessible to a general audience. It should be written in a conversational way, as if you were explaining your research to a 12- or 13-year-old, rather than to those reviewing a grant application, he added.
“That’s not to be condescending to the broader public, that’s just how you have to write it so that everyone understands,” Schein said. “Write it simply, make it short, get to the point, tell them why it’s exciting, why you do this, why you love it, make it a little bit personal, but it has to be simple and it has to be good.”
Interacting with backers and promoting the project on social media platforms is important to get the word out about a campaign, but it’s not something all researchers are comfortable with.
“You have to have access to a lot of social networks and that’s not my skill set,” Culican said. “What I ended up doing is, some of my collaborators are younger people with more social-network-savvy connections and then they started sharing it [the campaign] and the funding picked up.”
Her project was eventually fully funded by the deadline, though not without some hiccups along the way.
“The biggest snafu was the fact that I did not set up the account to be 501(c)(3)-compatible in advance of the campaign, so donors could not take the donations as a tax break,” she said. “You can do this, but it needs to be in place before the go-live date. I’d fix that if I had to do it again.”
Connecting with the right audience is still a challenge for her going forward and something she says she’ll think about before doing another crowdfunding campaign.
Jamie Barras, head of the Humanitarian Technologies Lab in the Department of Informatics at the UK’s King’s College London, faced similar challenges in his own campaign. Initially, the lab had a partner with a wide social media network that was going to help promote his team’s project. However, that partner pulled out just before launch and they didn’t have a backup plan. To make matters worse, they launched in November 2016, the same month as the US presidential election. “When we came knocking, both social and traditional media were a little preoccupied with other things,” he said.
It’s not just about the funding
Whether successful or unsuccessful, or still in the midst of their campaigns, all the researchers we spoke with found crowdfunding to be worthwhile. As mentioned in our September article, the key benefit was engaging the public and getting their research out there, something that doesn’t happen when applying for a traditional grant.
“Getting people interested in and literate in science right now is a major issue,” Schein said. “We’ve got to do whatever we can to get people more interested and aware of the science that happens in their daily lives. I think one of the best benefits of crowdfunding is that it forces scientists and science students to communicate more effectively with the broader public. You’re not going to raise all your money from other scientists, which means you have to talk with people who are not scientists about your science in an effective way that makes them want to be interested, if not donate. That requires some skill, some training, [and] some practice.” Morgan agrees that getting science and the issues surrounding scientific funding into the public eye is a key benefit to crowdfunding.
“People are trying to do different things and question the best ways we can [fund research] and I think that’s quite exciting for science,” she said. “I think there’s going to be some very interesting and valuable science that’s going to happen as people navigate their way through [crowdfunding]. Ultimately, I think it’s going to really help us make sure that the science we’re funding is actually going to have impact.”
Though Barone’s campaign was unsuccessful, he ended up funding antYbuddY. com using his own funds and it has been up and running for a few months. And the contacts he made through his campaign have proven valuable.
“Although I missed my crowdfund target, I did gain contacts and a social presence that have helped me further down the line,” he said. “It has also given me experience in areas outside of science that I use today.” Barras, though his campaign was still only 56 percent funded at the time of writing, is also positive about the experience.
“We haven’t reached the full amount, but we have made enough to support viable field trials, so the effort has been worthwhile,” he said. “First and foremost, it was great to read from backers [about] why they backed us; it reaffirmed in us the real-world value of our research. More widely, we learned a lot both as researchers and academics about public engagement in the [relatively new] world of social media—and those lessons are being taken up by others in the university.”
As science-specific crowdfunding matures, the benefits seem like they’ll only get greater and greater.
“I think that crowdfunding for science is a really exciting space,” Jonk said. “I think that it will work really well in the future for both small projects and large projects. At the moment, we’re just scratching the surface and it will take time for it to be able to fund really [large] projects on a regular basis, but it will happen eventually.”
Key Crowdfunding Advice from the Researchers and Crowdfunding Site Managers We Spoke to: