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Crowdfunding Science.

8 March 2013

With research dollars now very hard to come by, with tight funding lines and budget cuts to the NIH and NSF and basically every other funding organization, many people are turning to crowdfunding science projects. Essentially, writing up project proposals online and trying to find micro-donors. For the most part, it’s incredibly difficult to get large projects off the ground. But, using sites like Rocket Hub and Microryza, scientists are appealing to large numbers of people and hoping to fund small projects. The largest project I’ve heard of being successfully funded is Ethan Perlstein’s $25,000 project, Crowdsourcing Discovery.*

Let’s put that in perspective: the NIH’s signature grant is the R01. It pays about $1,250,000 over five years. So, ten times the amount Dr. Perlstein raised each year for five years. Currently, crowdfunding is not close to being able to support large-scale scientific efforts. At least, not directly. But let’s not forget that an enormous amount of foundation money is crowdfunded. They ask for donations and have dinners and fundraisers, etc., and they are able to accrue vast sums of money. Humans are charitable. And most people like science when it’s well explained and accessible.

I don’t have a huge readership, but I know I have an engaged readership. And I know that a huge population of my readership are not professional scientists. Lots and lots of my readers are alcoholics and addicts in recovery, in fields other than science in their professional lives. I think that for crowdfunding to be successful, we need to engage with people outside the scientific arena, so that we don’t just have a sealed community trying to pass small bits of support around an ever-shrinking circle, as administrators and institutions take their cuts off the top.

So I am going to make an open offer here at Infactorium. Are you a scientist trying to crowdfund a project? Are you a non-scientist who knows of a crowdfunding effort in science that you’d like to see given some publicity? Let me know about it. I’ll write it up here, or if it’s your project I’ll let you write up a 500-1000 word description of it (written for non-scientists) with a link to your funding effort, and I’ll post it here as a Guest Infact.

Let’s try to move outside our own insular circles. Science is fun, and interesting, and exciting. For example, look at what Dr. Elizabeth Quinn of Washington University in St. Louis is trying to do. She’s researching breast milk and breast-feeding in Nepal and Tibet. At least, she will if ┬áthe crowdfunding effort is successful. It’s an interesting project and she’s a promising young researcher with big ideas.

I don’t know if crowdfunding will ever be a viable option for sustaining scientists. But it probably can be at least a viable means of generating preliminary data and establishing some scientific credibility for grant applications. And maybe for generating some bridge funding for scientists who need to convince their administrations of productivity. But most of all, it might become a viable means of supporting small but ambitious science projects that expand human knowledge and generate exciting results.

And that’s why we got into science in the first place. To explore nature and humanity and learn how to make the world a better place. To preserve the wonderful things about the world. To improve the human experience. Crowdfunding is a way for all of us to be a part of that. Give it a shot.


*Update. The Lewis Lab points out the uBiome project has raised over $350,000 for their project using crowdfunding. So it CAN be done!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. pprfldr permalink
    9 March 2013 08:42

    wouldnt something like kickstarter work for funding research projects too? scientific or not?

    • 9 March 2013 10:19

      I don’t know. Kickstarter is mostly for business, right, and needs to have a profit plan? I could be wrong about that.

      • 10 March 2013 23:26

        That’s actually not true. Kickstarter is unregulated crowdfunding, not to be confused with equity-based crowdfunding. That said for-profit entities finance projects or do advance sales of products on Kickstarter all the time, it’s just not considered an investment. Also, Kickstarter projects are mostly in art, music, film and tech spaces.

        uBiome and American Gut project together raised over $600,000 on IndieGoGo, so science crowdfunding is well beyond the prototyping stage. As far as a purely basic biomedical research project, Crowd4Discovery set a record. So thanks for the mention! And please follow our progress @Crowd4Discovery on Twitter. :)

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