Posted by: Jeremy Fox | May 2, 2012

Crowdfunding science: the future?

Round 2 of the SciFund Challenge is now live. This is a crowdfunding initiative in which dozens of scientists get money to support their research by appealing for small donations directly from the public. Here’s an old Oikos blog guest post from one of the SciFund founders, talking about the initiative. Discussion of Round 2 at NeuroDojo and I’m a Chordata! Urochordata!. The latter has also been posting very interesting analyses of the results from Round 1 (look for posts tagged #SciFund).

I think SciFund is a great idea, the founders deserve a lot of credit for getting it off the ground and continuing to put a lot of effort into making it better. But is it, as NeuroDojo suggests, the future of science funding? Well, there’s every reason to think it’s part of the future, as NeuroDojo documents. But while it’s very hard to say what the long-term future will bring, my guess would be that it’s not going to be more than a complement to more traditional funding sources (not that anybody’s claiming otherwise). I say that in part because massive crowdfunding successes, like musician Amanda Palmer, who raised $250,000 for her next album in one day, are exceptional. Just because she did it doesn’t mean everyone can do it. And while lots of good science is relatively cheap, lots of it isn’t. Yes, as NeuroDojo says, soon somebody is likely to break through and raise an NSF grant’s worth of funding by crowdsourcing. But lots of somebodys? Or even, say, as many somebodys as NSF funds? It could well be that I’m just a traditionalist who lacks sufficient vision and imagination (seriously, that could well be the case here), but I have a hard time seeing that happening. When R.E.M. retired, I read an interview with bassist Mike Mills in which he suggested that in future the internet would allow many more bands to attain some modest degree of success than used to be the case, but that we’d never again see a band get as big as R.E.M. or U2. I suspect something similar might be true for crowdfunded science–it might allow lots of people to pay for quite modest projects, but allow few if any to do really big things (or even NSF-grant-sized things).

I also wonder (and worry) about how a future in which crowdfunding is a big fraction of all funding would shape what science gets funded. As far as I can tell, the Round 1 SciFund data are mostly about relating characteristics of investigators to their funding success. What about characteristics of their science? For instance, are conservation or other applied projects an easier sell than fundamental research? Can you crowdfund theoretical work? Conversely, how easy is it to crowdfund the scientific equivalent of snake oil (or even just a poorly-designed or boring project)? SciFund quite rightly involves investigators sharing advice on how to market their work to the public, and yes, regular research grants also involve some measure of salesmanship. But as anybody who’s ever seen commercial advertisements knows, there’s marketing and there’s marketing. I do wonder if crowdfunded science will end up being driven by what’s marketable, to an extent that would make old fogies like me uncomfortable.


  1. I’ve been quite curious to see a new quote starting to make the rounds – in contrast to “Publish or perish,” it is “Be visible or vanish.”

    Crowdfunding is clearly a tricky beast. Building a visible accessible research program is a huge part of it. But there’s also certainly an element of creating a proposal that can catch fire – that can catch the right people and interests and just take off.

    Or at least, that’s where it is for science now. Will it be that way in 15 years, or will we have improved our science communication to the point where this *can* be yet another stream of funding. You’re right, it’s not an NSF/NSERC replacement. But it is not an NSF/NSERC replacement in the same way that the Packard, Sloan, and other foundations are not an NSF/NSERC replacement.

    There will be certain scientists who really nail this funding medium, and certain kinds of science that are a great fit. The two don’t need to overlap, though. For example, last round I pulled in a good chunk of money to fund research to quantify measurement error. Yep. Measurement error. To do that took some real creativity in creating an appealing proposal, thinking about how to make the dataset connect with outside folk, and then working my butt off to do the outreach to a lot of different communities to pull in people who were science-interested and interested in the kinds of data I would be working with.

    So, different medium, different set of skills required, different beast. And given how tight funding can be, it’s only a good thing to open up another stream – and even better to open one up that requires Scientists to engage with the communities around them.

    And as for fogies like you, heck, by doing the blog work you are doing here, you’re actually ideally positioned to take advantage of crowdfunding in the future. I’m just sayin’.

    Oh, and for the analysis, go here.

    • “And as for fogies like you, heck, by doing the blog work you are doing here, you’re actually ideally positioned to take advantage of crowdfunding in the future.”

      Didn’t your data actually show that having a blog had no effect on success once other factors were taken into account? 😉 Of course, I doubt you had any zombie joke-based bloggers in your dataset, so you’d have to extrapolate to apply the conclusions to any crowdfunding I might attempt. 😉

      • Actually, having a blog has a decent effect. The final model shows that blogs -> more twitter followers -> more project views -> more contributors -> more $$$. So, an indirect effect, but it’s there. And that’s with a small sample size – I wouldn’t be surprised if, after cranking up the sample size with #SciFund 2 (74 scientists a last count – we have a few stragglers still coming in) that I might be better able to detect some additional direct effects. I would not be surprised if blogging was one of tem.

        Oh, and, it’s not just having a blog that matters, it’s # of blog posts per month. So…I think you have a good chance of doing well!

      • Thanks for the clarification, I was misremembering your results slightly. Though now I’m wondering about type of blog. My blogging is aimed at current and future professional colleagues, not at the general public. So I’m not sure if blogging even as much as I do has really improved my ability to sell my own science to the general public. Then again, a lot of marketing is finding the right target audience. Maybe I should aim to attract lots of donations from “ecologists who like snarky zombie jokes”. 😉

      • I totally want to see the snarky zombie project. Hey, Zombies were popular in our last round (and this one too with Ressurection Ecology)

        I actually think that blogs and Twitter, while both having causal influences, also are indicators for something that we cannot (yet) measure – the skill and ability and WILLINGNESS of a scientist to do outreach. If you’re blogging a lot, you’ve got a fire lit under you to go out and communicate things in the public. Those are the skills that will translate to running a successful crowdfunding campaign.

  2. I agree that crowdfunding will likely be complementary to other sources of funding. And it should be.

    However, regarding the statement ‘I do wonder if crowdfunded science will end up being driven by what’s marketable’ – that’s already happening in the more traditional funding arenas, too. Phrases like ‘picking winners’ and ‘applied, not basic/fundamental science’, as well as ‘commercialisation’ and ‘innovation!’ are all alternative phrases often used for this turn of events.

    Further, many a proposal has been won by a charming bid or group of scientists, or a charming subject (think charismatic megafauna).

    At the end of the day, I think, this allows members of the public to fund projects which may not, otherwise, get funded. Those darn telescopes of SETI’s, for example ( – happily, the crowdfunding drive was successful!) :P

  3. I’ll have a substantive reply later, but wanted to say thanks for the response!

    • You’re welcome, looking forward to the reply!

  4. I’m going to be working on a set of blog posts talking about this over this month. Meanwhile, I thought some context might help.

    I’ve been blogging about issues that lead to why I think crowdfunding is part of the future of science for five years now. Obviously, I know what I’ve written, but I sure don’t expect Oikos Blog readers to have read through all those posts where I started to articulate those ideas.

    Here is a précis of the arguments, which includes a lot of links to old posts that expand on each idea.

    • Thanks Zen, having an entry point to your writing on this is very helpful to me, and I’m sure to many readers as well.

    • I’ve replied over on your blog, but just for the benefit of readers here, I’ll note that Zen’s argument for crowdfunding also looks to me like an argument for federal funding agencies to switch to an NSERC Discovery Grant-type funding model (basically, try to sustainably fund excellent long-term research programs, not excellent short-term projects). My old posts on this are here, here, and here.

      I got frustrated with discussing funding systems because too many of the people I was debating find the Canadian system, and the idea of switching to it, too stupid for words (see here for my humorous response). And they find the Canadian system stupid even though they hate the US funding system for all the same reasons most everyone does (low success rates, etc.). I don’t pretend to understand the psychology of this, but I’ll be curious if the idea of crowdfunding draws a similarly dismissive reaction from anyone…

  5. […] and Jarrett Byrnes, and unsurprisingly includes a lot of ecology projects (and has drawn commentary from eco-blogger Jeremy Fox). But topics a bit nearer and dearer to my heart are represented as well: tropical parasites […]

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