Crowdfunding your science: part 1

5/23/2019 2:12:46 PM

Crowdfunding can be a fun way to get the public engaged with your scientific research or outreach work, while raising some funds in the process. For this two-part series, we reached out to science professionals experienced with crowdfunding to get their take on what makes for a successful project. The first part in this series is about selecting a suitable project and crowdfunding platform. Next week, we will focus on effective marketing and outreach strategies for crowdfunding campaigns.  

Evaluating project fit for crowdfunding  

As Jai Ranganathan, executive director of SciFund Challenge, points out in a video on the organization’s website, crowdfunding is not “magic money.” Don’t expect to simply put up a project page on a crowdfunding website and sit back waiting for the pennies to start falling from the heavens. Crowdfunding requires careful planning and a concerted outreach effort.  

One of the first steps in the process is to evaluate if your project is a good fit for crowdfunding. Consider why your work would be of interest to the general public and what specific component (e.g., materials, travel) could be funded this way.  

An independent analysis of projects crowdfunded on the platform Experiment has revealed a number of factors for funding success. For example, the results suggest projects run by students and junior investigators and those of relatively small size are more likely to reach their funding targets.  

In general, crowdfunding tends to work best when folks ask for small amounts for a very defined and specific project. This can be for materials for a research or outreach project or travel expenses for a sampling trip. It's also a potential way for early-career scientists to fund training-related expenses (e.g., conference travel, tuition).  

Using crowdfunding to launch future studies  

Cindy Wu, co-founder of Experiment, said that many scientists have used crowdfunding to collect preliminary data for grant proposals. “If you can test a specific hypothesis with $4,000, Experiment might be a good use of your time,” she said. As an example, she pointed to this project on why jumping spiders are so colorful, which has gone on to receive grant funding after some data collection was done using Experiment funds.  

Another example of a project that meets suitability criteria is one recently posted on Experiment focused on deciphering the microbiome in aquaculture that causes mortality in the Hawaiian bobtail squid.  

Scott Hamilton–Brehm, assistant professor at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale, is collaborating with undergraduate researchers in his lab to raise funds to support a summer research project.  

As background, the Hawaiian bobtail squid often is used as a model organism for host–microbe interaction studies due to its symbiotic relationship with a singular photoluminescent bacterium stored in a special organ. This light source acts as a cloaking mechanism to protect the squid from predators at night. Researchers are interested in understanding how the squid is able to selectively harvest its symbiont within the light organ.  

Normally, these squids survive just fine in a tank environment in the laboratory, but, in some cases, Scott’s colleague has observed severe mortality incidents. He explains: “Dr. (Bethany) Rader had a mysterious event occur where the majority of her squid were becoming sick, yet everything she had been doing is the same all the years before. It made me wonder what the microbes were doing — or possibly they were sick too; not the one inside the squid, but, rather the ones that maintain the aquaculture.”  

Therefore, they started collecting tank aquaculture samples, and students have been performing the DNA sequencing and bioinformatic analyses to see what’s going on. And, in fact, they have observed changes in the microbiome community between samples. More work is needed to continue the analyses, but there’s a general lack of funding for side projects like these.  

“A project like this asks a very real, hypothesis-driven question,” he said, “but is not part of a larger proposal. It could be, but, without preliminary results, it will not get funded.”  

His team is hoping that the public will step in to support the continuation of this work.  

Choosing a crowdfunding platform  

There are a number of crowdfunding websites from which to choose. You must determine which fits your needs best.  

Two of the most popular websites are Kickstarter and Indiegogo, both of which require a product or service to be offered to project backers. Experiment and MedStartr, meanwhile, are specifically designed to host scientific research and healthcare-related projects. Other platforms, such as GoFundMe, allow more flexibility in raising funds for personal use.  

Some other factors to consider when picking a crowdfunding platform include the success rate of projects funded, fee structures and whether the site follows an “all-or-nothing” funding model. Additionally, you’ll want to reach out to the website staff to get a sense of their willingness to work with project organizers and what support is offered.  

If you are affiliated with an academic institution, also be sure to check with the appropriate offices (e.g., office of research, university foundation) to see if they offer any training workshops and/or host their own crowdfunding platforms. As examples, both the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and University of California, Berkeley, have crowdfunding sites. Your institution may have related crowdfunding rules and branding guidelines that should be followed as well.  

Stay tuned for the second part in this series with tips on how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign through effective outreach and marketing efforts.


Recommended resources

Crowdfunding resources page (SciFund Challenge)

Crowdfunding scientific research: Descriptive insights and correlates of funding success (PLoS ONE)

Researcher guide (Experiment)

Running a successful crowdfunding campaign (Lab Manager)

To crowdfund research, scientists must build an audience for their work (PLoS ONE)

Where is crowdfunding in science headed? (Lab Manager)

With funding becoming scarce, scientists are looking to the public for help (ASBMB Today)


Editor's note

If you know an undergraduate student in need of financial support, the deadline to apply for the Marion B. Sewer Distinguished Scholarship for Undergraduates is June 1. This scholarship is open to ASBMB student members who are full-time students at the junior level or higher with at least a 3.0 GPA. Students whose social, educational or economic background adds to the diversity of the biomedical workforce or who show commitment to enhancing academic success of underrepresented students are especially encouraged to apply. Students with DACA status also are eligible.


Donna Kridelbaugh is a contributor to the ASBMB Careers Blog. She holds an advanced degree in microbiology and is a former lab manager.   

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