Three Perspectives on Crowdfunding Science

AAAS - The World_s Largest General Scientific SocietyThis morning I took part in a call by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Crowdfunding Science: Appealing to the online community for research money

The Panelists:
Jarret Byrnes
Co-founder of Scifund Challenge
Assistant Prof, Dept of Biology
Uni of Massachusetts

Erica Hermsen
Project Leader of Here Kitty Kitty …Luring Cheetahs for Conservation Research

Ethan O. Perlsein
Project Leader of Crowdsourcing Discovery

Moderator
Adam Ruben
Scientist-Comedian

Adam did an introduction in which he noted that on the most popular crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, in 2012 the public pledged $320m and there were 18,000 successful projects.

From a macro-perspective, both federal and state funding for science is at best flat, if not in a downward trend. Against this backdrop crowdfunding holds huge potential for getting scientists directly engaged with the public.
Jarrett spoke about the Scifund Challenge. Under this initiative scientists come together twice a year to collectively raise funding through crowdfunding. In the lead up they go through a month of training and are provided with a variety of tools and platforms. The training includes how to write a good blog, video creation, how to create a compelling application. The Scifund community also helps in shaping up proposals.

From his perspective engagement leads to crowdfunded science. As such they focus heavily on online engagement and community building. Scifund has a twitter hash tag, a Facebook page and a presence on Google. They also have an existing relationship with Rockethub, a crowdfunding platform.

To date, there have been three Scifund rounds. In total 252,000 has been raised for 159 projects, of which 59 received 100% of the funding they requested. They found that small donations drive Scifund, mainly in the $1,500 to $2,000 range.

Jarret believes that the secret to engagement is to have a strong online presence and create and tap into a scientific fan base. Audience engagement is key. They have found that as more donations roll in, donations grow in size – people like a success story.

Key success factors from his viewpoint:
* Build an audience
* Get trained in outreach
* Work to change academic culture and policy – collaboration with media and arts departments, hiring and promotion practices

The benefits of crowdfunding:
* Build bridges between science and society
* Enhanced science literacy
* Science incubator for new projects
* Key metric to assess scientists ability to connect
* Look at it as funded outreach training

Erica used petridish.org to raise funds for her masters project which aimed to use camera traps to determine effectiveness of bait types at luring cheetahs in Kenya. Her total project budget was $38,000. On petridish she sought to raise $2,500. In 65 days she raised $3,212 from nine backers – 128% of her goal.

Petridish is focused on science-based projects, backers receive rewards from researchers in return, it’s an all or nothing system.

To apply you must be affiliated with a university and must create an Amazon account to receive your funding.

She made a three minute video, posted photos, a project description, put up a budget, and suggested rewards for potential backers. Her rewards included a souvenir from Kenya for a $150 donation, photo prints for $450, and $1,000 naming rights to a photographed cheetah. This last reward was not picked up by backers and in retrospect was not doable.

She found that the more interesting your rewards, the more response you will get.

She promoted her campaign through social media – Twitter and Facebook, and sent out emails to her and her Professor’s network. She also kept a running blog during her time in Kenya.

The majority of her contributors were petridish members. She sent immediate follow ups thanking people for their pledge as she wanted to retain contacts for future projects.

Her lessons learned:
* Do a cost benefit analysis of rewards you promise. The cost of purchasing, labor and international shipping can quickly add up.
* It’s key to maintain communication with backers throughout the project.
* Keep your budget to a minimum.
Ethan Perlstein used to have a lab at Princeton. Today he regards himself as an open scientist and his lab exists in the cloud. He spoke about his 52 day campaign to raise $25,000. He pointed to the lifecycle of a crowdfunding application: the campaign starts with novelty buzz and then fluctuates and you need to maintain sustained growth to reach your goal in time. It is essential to do a countdown in the last 24 hours to maintain buzz.

Essentially he feels crowdfunding is running a marketing campaign utilising social media and general media. For example his campaign was covered by a number of publications including, Scientific American, Wired, The Economist, Forbes and Mashable.

He hussled to get 2-3 donors a day through email and says it is key to activate your following through social media.

A supporter posted a link to Hacker News. This resulted in a spike of a thousand page views and led to $1,000 in donations.

In total his campaign had 390 donors, with a small number giving between $200-$1,000, and most giving between $50-$199.

One of the key benefits he sees to crowdfunding is that it is leading to an unpacking of the blackbox of science. Scientists know it is a choppy process, not always leading to positive results in projects. The added transparency of crowdfunding is educating the public on how science works.

A follow up question was on how does crowdfunding work in terms of taxes?
If funds go to you as an individual you can get taxed, so it is better to have the funds go your university or a non profit entity.

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