November 2013

With funding becoming scarce, scientists are looking to the public for help

Crowdfunding is one way to finance projects and increase public awareness of research

Faced with having to lay off lab members and yet still having to make progress on research projects, in spring 2013 Michael Pirrung, a professor of chemistry at the University of California-Riverside, was in search for money and fast.
He began searching for untraditional sources of funding so that he could have his anticancer drug synthesized and sent to the National Cancer Institute for tests. Sadly, Pirrung’s situation is becoming commonplace among scientists in light of continual flat funding at the National Institutes of Health and deeper cuts due to the Budget Control Act of 2011. Scientists are losing jobs in record numbers, and some are considering careers in other countries.
But some researchers, including Pirrung, refuse to leave any stone unturned when it comes to finding money for their research projects and labs. While these scientists have not hit the streets asking for money just yet, they are doing it in the digital world: They’re turning to crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding 101
Crowdfunding, which solicits funds from the public for projects, is not new. It was even used in 1885 to raise money to build the pedestal that the Statue of Liberty stands on today. More recently, it has been used primarily in the arts – to fund musical work, smartphone apps or even movies.
It is now taking off in the sciences. The process begins with a researcher posting a project on a crowdfunding website (Table 1). Each project includes a description, an explanation of its importance, a video, updates on progress and comments from project donors. Researchers also provide a budget and set a funding goal.

Table 1: Current crowdfunding sites available to researchers

Geekfunder All-or-nothing
Kickstarter All-or-nothing
Microryza All-or-nothing
Petridish All-or-nothing
RocketHub Keep-it-all
Superior Ideas Keep-it-all

Keep-it-all models allow researchers to keep all of the money donated regardless of whether the goal is met at the end of the timeframe. All-or-nothing models require researchers to reach or surpass their funding goals to obtain the funds.

Each website has different constraints for the funding timeline and how the money is dispersed to the researcher. Some crowdfunding sites require that the funding goal be met or surpassed (the all-or-none funding model) to receive the money.
Success with crowdfunding
Already there have been dozens of projects successfully funded by the crowd. These projects include developing new imaging techniques for surgeons, studying the impact of gun-control laws, and studying pollution in waterways.
Elizabeth Iorns, co-founder and chief executive officer of Science Exchange, funded a project aimed at preventing the transmission of a BRCA mutation, a gene that can increase the likelihood of breast cancer.
Iorns chose this funding mechanism because she had left academia to start her company and thought she had little chance of obtaining funding through a traditional grant application. But professors at universities also use this type of funding. During Pirrung’s search for funding to synthesize a kidney-cancer drug, he used crowdfunding to start the project. Without crowdfunding, it is likely both projects would not have been initiated.
Getting the word out
Crowdfunding sounds simple, right? Well, not so fast! There are several things that researchers should be aware of when using crowdfunding sites.
Pirrung says he “initially thought the website would bring thousands of eyes” to his project and that “everyone would donate a dollar or $5.” This proved not to be the case.
Public outreach is a necessity for a project to be funded successfully through crowdfunding sites. It isn’t necessarily about the project details; it’s the project’s ability to garner the public’s attention that leads to its success. Both Iorns and Pirrung appealed to cancer groups to help gather funds for their projects.
Attracting various patient advocacy groups provides an immediate crowd in which to pitch your research ideas. “It is a lot of work,” says Iorns, who primarily used social media outlets. Pirrung took another route and searched for an influential science blogger to write about his project and post a link to the project website.
Most crowdfunding sites coach users on how to create an interesting project summary and how to reach out to the public. Clearly, scientists who are present in their local communities and online are more likely to be successful than those who have little interaction with the public or lack online presences. Tips for increasing your Internet presence were presented in the August issue of ASBMB Today.
Crowdfunding provides a podium
By pitching ideas for crowdfunding, scientists are able to interact with the public. Public donors will have personal investments in these projects, and they will learn what exactly is happening in the labs. Researchers are encouraged and sometimes required to keep donors updated on their progress. This allows donors to obtain knowledge and may help provide a new outlook on the science enterprise. Scientists often leave the public out, though it is public money that helps fund federal grants.
Senior researchers are not the only ones using crowdfunding to help start projects. A number of projects have been initiated by undergraduate and doctoral students and postdoctoral scientists. Doctoral students often have few sources of funding available to them for their projects, but crowdfunding offers a unique opportunity for them to pitch their ideas. Posting projects online teaches students early on how to market their science, and it allows them to build a relationship with the public that can be carried on to their future research positions.
Crowdfunding also advertises the university or research center. This helps institutions engage their local communities, alumni and potential donors.
Concerns with crowdfunding
There are some concerns that users of crowdfunding should be aware of before pursuing this type of funding.
Most crowdfunding sites lack formal review committees. As this type of funding mechanism rises in popularity, there is a growing concern over how to maintain the legitimacy of projects and keep the public’s trust. New crowdfunding sites are popping up frequently, and some are beginning initiatives to ward off these concerns.
Larry Lawal, founder and chief executive officer of HealthFundit, started his company with the goal of initiating collaborations with universities to help address legitimacy concerns and issues with the transfer of funds to universities. Lawal believes “crowdfunding can serve as a powerful tool to enable bold research that may otherwise not be possible; however, it’s important for investigators to not compromise on scientific review.” Over all, because these projects are posted online, the community has the ability to self-police the projects presented on the sites, providing a crowdsourced peer-review process.
The transfer of money from the crowdfunding website to the university has led to some institutional bureaucratic issues. Because people donate the money for the research project, most universities look at it as a gift, so researchers are not required to provide a percentage for indirect costs (money used for building maintenance, electricity or lab space).
In addition, these sites do take a percentage of the money raised for their overhead before giving the money to the university. Some universities object to such a fee. Most universities require that the total amount of money raised be given to the university first, and then site administrators can be reimbursed. Researchers should look into their own institutions’ policies before using a crowdfunding site.
Additionally, most projects set their funding targets at anywhere between $1,000 and $20,000. It is clear that crowdfunding does not replace large federal or private foundation grants. Pirrung states, “It is a lot of work for not a lot of money.”
Most of the successful projects have clear short-term goals that are easy to convey to the public. Alternatively, some researchers use crowdfunding sites to begin high-risk, high-reward projects that may help them develop successful grants for federal agencies. However, this may lead some to fear that their projects may be stolen by competitors.
Careers in academia are built on obtaining successful projects, funds and papers. Therefore, it is vital that researchers maintain a balance between the information they share with the public and the information they keep to themselves before they publish and submit grants. This is a concern that researchers must face on a case-by-case basis. Another fear is journals turning down manuscripts because data were posted on these sites. In addition, there are concerns about how these online websites will affect intellectual property rights and copyrights that some researchers pursue for specific compounds or techniques created in the lab. All these issues require individuals to speak with officials within their universities or outside their universities to learn how best to limit these side effects.
Concluding remarks
Crowdfunding is an exciting new area of opportunity for researchers, but, as noted, there are concerns still to be addressed as this funding mechanism matures. Crowdfunding is a great way to garner public attention in research and build a fan base that researchers can use for future projects.
By the way, Pirrung’s story does have a happy ending. His kidney-cancer drug was successfully synthesized and sent to the NCI for comprehensive tests. In addition, he secured more funding to continue his work on developing anticancer drugs and avoid laying off lab members. Pirrung says that it was “crucial to have the crowdfunding work as a bridge” until other funds could be secured.

Mark StewartMark Stewart ( is a Ph.D. student in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s cancer biology program and works in the pathology department.

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