Kit Chapman asks if crowdfunding is the answer for researchers struggling for funds


In 2014 Heather Richard faced a dilemma. She had designed a project for her master’s degree at San Francisco State University, US, investigating whether biofilms cause the collection of heavy metals on marine plastic debris. Once completed, she could move on to her PhD. Everything was ready to launch. She just needed the money to do it.

Despite working four different jobs to try and raise the money, Richard had only mustered around $1100 (£750) in start-up costs, as well as supplies from her graduate department. It wasn’t enough – and she couldn’t wait for the usual way academic projects are funded. ‘I had applied for three or four grants,’ she recalls. ‘It’s an exhausting process. You wait for the right opportunity and then wait six months to see if you got it. I knew I had a solid idea and didn’t have that time to waste.’

As a last resort, Richard opted to fund her project through Experiment, an online crowdfunding platform. Currently only available in the US (with pilot schemes in the UK, Canada and Australia), Experiment aims to make science more accessible, and focuses on the results rather than giving backers rewards for funding a project. ‘The reward is the science itself,’ says Cindy Wu, co-founder of Experiment. ‘We don’t have tangible rewards we give to the backers.’

Instead, backers get protocols, field diaries, photos and videos. ‘We believe that for every research project there is an audience,’ says Wu. ‘The biggest challenge is connecting those two audiences. Online you will see audiences discussing really technical topics. There is an audience that wants to fund them.’

Starting out

Richard admits that she didn’t really know what to expect when she first took the plunge into crowdfunding. Despite 10 years as an environmental educator, she didn’t have an established social media profile or any experience breaking out of the traditional academic route. ‘I thought I could share a link to the website and have people I didn’t know knocking down my door. That wasn’t the case. There were a few people I didn’t know who gave me funding, and a few that gave quite generously, but mostly it was friends and family. I thought it would be easy to reach out to others who do plastics stuff, but everyone is busy … I had higher expectations than I should have had.’

Richard’s experience is not uncommon, advises Jai Ranganathan, a conservation biologist at the University of California, US, and co-founder of SciFund Challenge. ‘There’s a big misconception of how crowdfunding works. This is how the media portrays it: someone puts a project up, it goes viral for some unknown reason – it explodes – and hundreds of thousands flood into the person’s bank account. It’s not that it doesn’t happen [this way], but it’s rare – it’s like hearing about lottery winners.’

SciFund Challenge is a non-profit organisation that aims to bridge the gap between science and society, something Ranganathan insists is crucial when crowdfunding a project. ‘The key message for crowdfunding is that in almost all cases it only makes sense in the context of ongoing outreach. Why do people give to anything? It’s because they feel a personal connection. Building a connection takes time.’

For Ranganathan, it’s a misconception that people fund specific projects. ‘People don’t feel allegiance to chemistry, they feel it to a particular chemist.’

Natalie Jonk, founder of the UK-based science crowdfunding site Walacea, agrees that this means there is a limit to how much can be funded. ‘There are still a lot of unknowns,’ she says. ‘If you are trying to raise less than £2000, if you are really determined, you can do that. Over that, you need more and more people, and to make sure your campaign really resonates.’

Richard’s project largely relied on her own social circle, managing to raise the $3000 needed to achieve her aims. ‘It was a little distressing that my friends and family were putting up the money,’ she admits. ‘I had to get over that.’ 

Status update

As part of the project, Richard gave regular reports to her backers, posting short videos explaining her work and sharing pictures and data from the project. ‘I’m from Maine, so it was a really nice thing to create these videos to show people who aren’t in science and people I care about who aren’t here with me [in California] what I’ve been doing … I think it was exciting for friends and family to get a glimpse in my world.’

She received a short email from a concerned backer: “Are you being careful? Love, Mom.”

Regular updates are a critical part of why crowdfunding works, agrees Wu. ‘We like a transparent dialogue between the scientist and the audience. If they don’t meet it they can write why – as we know science doesn’t always go as expected … some people get upset, but the majority of people giving over and over again have a background in science or know someone in science, so it hasn’t been an issue.’

Such a close relationship also means feedback is far more personal than usually seen in academia. While analysing some samples during her project, Richard received a short email from a concerned backer: ‘I know you don’t need me to ask this, but I just want to be sure. When you are working with corrosive acids, are you being careful? Love, Mom.’

The message was just one example of the additional encouragement Richard says she received throughout the project. ‘A lot of it was emotional feedback from friends and family. As a grad student you get so involved in what you’re doing you lose faith that what you’re doing is important. It’s really nice to get that excitement from other people, so you know you’re doing cool stuff … It really helped me to talk about my work.’

Richard also admits that having an audience following your work can add pressures that most scientists are unlikely to experience. ‘I only asked for the minimum of what I needed, so I could only do this experiment once. It definitely made the work stressful because I felt the stakes didn’t just involve me but also my family, who had given hard-earned money. I knew things go wrong in science all the time, but if my experiment went wrong it would feel like I tossed their money into the garbage. The stakes were higher, but it also drove me. It’s not something I could put off. Someone had paid me, now I had to do it.’

There are also question marks about the scientific validity of projects that are crowdfunded compared with more traditionally funded papers. If crowdfunding moves science into a sphere where anyone can do it (one of Experiment’s aims is to ‘create a world where anyone can be a scientist’ says Wu), how do you ensure a project is viable without peer review, or has ethical approval?

Wu is not worried. ‘Every project is reviewed by our team and receives endorsements from other scientists … and everyone who reviews a project has a science background. We had a project of someone trying to find Bigfoot, and we didn’t accept it because they didn’t reveal their identity and didn’t have any endorsements.’ Wu contends this is just a natural evolution of how research will be performed. ‘Science is going to move into the public space whether or not we succeed. That’s just the direction science is going. And we just want to help things move a little faster.’

Walacea takes a different approach, explains Jonk. ‘We don’t get other experts to review a proposal … it’s not taxpayer money going in. With crowdfunding, there is a choice; it’s up to backers to do due diligence.’

Richard views crowdfunding as only one approach to science, not the sole answer to its future. ‘I think that something would be lost if that was the direction science went in,’ she argues. ‘The peer review process is really important for having people, not just the general public, say “this is worthy.” I had insecurities about not going through the standard process of not getting funded because I do believe in peer review.’

Project end

The end of Richard’s project is now in sight. However, its closure has brought mixed feelings. ‘I am at the point where I have results and am hesitating showing it. I am a little sad things are ending. It was a really fun run. I’m trying to figure a way to do it that would be satisfying for everyone. But there is that concern: what am I allowed to share? If I share results, what will be the consequences if I haven’t published them? So I am treading carefully. But in my head, my funders are waiting for me.’

Despite these concerns, she says she would recommend crowdfunding to other scientists ‘without hesitation’, if only for the connection it creates between your research and your loved ones. ‘You reach out to friends and family,’ she explains, ‘and say, “Now you are part of my science world.”’