Academic researchers turning to crowdfunding

knowledgeThere are few institutions more traditional than academia. Hallowed halls, centuries-old architecture and distinguished alumnae and faculty making their mark on the world.

A typical university is a multi-million dollar operation which faces the same concerns as any business: aging infrastructure, expensive equipment upgrades, high staffing costs. These all pace pressure on the ability to put out a quality product, whether that be educated graduates or topical research.

While the public hears about significant results on occasion in the media, most people have no idea of how laborious a process research as a whole can be – the paths culminating in dead ends after hundreds of hours of effort, time conflicts with teaching and other responsibilities, and the never-ending search for funding.

Ah yes, funding. A nation coming out of recession provides a challenging environment in which to solicit funds. Cuts to education by state governments and a recession-battered private sector with less money available to provide grants and you have a sector that should be searching the ends of the earth for new funding sources.

Tradition, meet the 21st century. Academic researchers have started to embrace crowdfunding as an additional funding method to complement grant applications. Historically, the researcher expends much effort in tracking down foundations and other sources of grants, spends dozens of hours per submission and then enters into a competition with an indeterminate number of competitors for a finite amount of funds. Available pools of money can never hope to satiate the demand of worthy research.

Crowdfunding gives an additional option that is welcome in a hyper-competitive environment. There are several sites devoted to funding research, including Petri Dish, I Am Scientist and Microryza. Most of the projects are asking for smaller amounts, though it is not hard to imagine larger requests in the future.

At first glance there are several benefits to crowdfunding research, but, as with any funding method, specific parameters need to be met and stakeholders need to be satisfied before research can receive funding. What are some of the considerations has to address before creating an academic crowdfunding campaign? What are the pros and cons?

To get a flavor for the experience of crowdfunding research I looked at Microryza. Founded in April, 2012, Microryza  bills itself as “a community of individuals who provide microgrants to help new research ideas.”

Compared with other funding methods, the hurdles to clear before getting a project on Microryza are fairly simple. First your project actually has to be research and not a thinly veiled cash grab to pay rez fees or finance a study week “research trip” to Fort Lauderdale. Is the research realistic? The project goals must be reasonable and within the capabilities of the research team. Finally you have to be able to verify your identity. Compared to 50 page applications with letters and c.v’s the process is straightforward.

You don’t even need a PhD or be linked to a formal institution to post your project. Develop an interesting project, meet the above criteria and you are on your way. This lack of exclusivity is one of the advantages crowdfunding has over traditional methods.

What is the crowdfunding experience like from the researcher’s perspective? I contacted the people behind three successful Microryza projects to get their impressions of the process.

Bergen McMurray and Katriona Guthrie-Honea are Co-Directors of  DIYbio, whose mandate is to “demystify science through education”, DIYbio offers classes that open up the world of science to those who may not have been exposed to it. They also offer financial assistance to enable all to participate. An intern at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Katriona attends high school in the Seattle area, while Bergen is a neuroscience student and past researcher at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and Jigsaw Renaissance. They secured $5,000 funding for DIYbio.

Lydia Chilton is a PhD student in computer science at the University of Washington. She is acutely interested in crowdsourcing and how it will change many of the world’s systems over the next decade. She generated $1,205 to look at what makes jokes funny.

Dr. Elizabeth Iorns is the Cofounder and CEO of Science Exchange, an online marketplace for science experiments, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Miami. She received $10,242 for research into the prevention of BRCA mutations that increase the probability of cancer in offspring by targeting the sperm that carry BRCA.

How was the Microryza process overall?

Each respondent commented on how helpful the Microryza staff were. Recognizing that many researchers may not know much about crowdfunding, the Microryza staff maintained regular communication and provided suggestions and resources to facilitate the process. Bergen McMurray described how Cindy Wu, her Microryza representative made the whole experience a personal one.

A concern voiced by some was that crowdfunding would be a cumbersome process, given many people’s lack of familiarity with the process and the ensuing learning curve, and that the campaign would require regular attention and maintenance which would keep researchers from other responsibilities. How was the process for them?

Katriona Guthrie-Honea described it as only “slightly more difficult than someone handing us a check.” She did acknowledge that there was some public relations work required but that the total effort was maybe 5% of the amount of work required to just apply for a grant. Both Lydia Chilton and Dr. Elizabeth Iorns mentioned the promotional aspects being the most time consuming parts but that overall the process was much simpler than the whole grant application process.

Katriona Guthrie-Honea identified a specific strength that may attract future researchers to Microryza. Most funding agencies do not address projects that require small amounts to get started, so Microryza and sites like it are filling an important niche.

Being a non-traditional method, one could imagine there may be concerns for the researchers prior to committing to the crowdfunding process. Did any of the researchers have worries, and if so, were they addressed? No one did with the process itself. The only issue brought up was one familiar to both crowdfunders and traditional research applicants – will we get it?

At least with crowdfunding you can track progress as you can check on pledges any time you want. Seeing she was short by a few hundred dollars with only hours to spare, Katriona Guthrie Honea rolled up her sleeves and sent reminders to her contacts. Within two hours she secured the balance. Contrast this with waiting for the mail carrier to bring news for weeks on end.

Academic freedom is a must for any credible researcher. Funds should have no strings attached and beyond any mandated updates in the eligibility criteria, the funder should have no influence. Did the researchers feel that at any point they had to make compromises to their research methodology in order to increase pledges?

Their response was the opposite, as everyone commented how academic freedom is enhanced by crowdfunding. Citing the conservative nature of the peer review process, Dr. Iorns felt crowdfunding was much more academically free. Katriona Guthrie-Honea and Bergen McMurray echoed those sentiments. “Crowdfunding supports academic freedom by allowing greater access to research funding,” McMurray offered. “By putting the power of funding into hundreds of people in the community rather than a single entity, it enables greater freedom of research.”

Some scientists I spoke with had a slight concern with the format if they felt they had to dilute their research goals in order to make it understandable for potential donors. That’s when it comes down to marketing. Can you communicate the benefits of your research to the community at large in a way that matters to them? What are its practical applications? Like any sales pitch, whether it be in a traditional or modern environment, the key is to know your audience and communicate the benefits in such a way as to activate the desire to support your work.

What about overall research quality? Are there any worries that research of a questionable quality can appear on the site, a development that if left unchecked could tarnish the efforts of all and effect the reputation of the site and the entire method?

Projects are vetted before they appear on the site and, more than traditional grants that only a few people see, the power of the crowd makes shoddy work less likely. “Academics usually sweep their uninteresting results under the rug, but on Microryza, they are very public.” Lydia Chilton said. “Doing work in public is a pretty good safeguard for preventing poor quality work because your reputation is on the line in a big way.”

One final note on presentations. Some sites do not allow material rewards as they prioritize the purity of the process. Microryza, for one, encourages researchers to provide regular updates and at the research’s conclusion they provide supporters with an electronic copy of the study if the campaign is 100% supported (Microryza follows an all or nothing format).

That’s a logical rationale but they are missing out on some fun. Supporting projects on Petri Dish can land you a native-made drum or a personal lectures delivered by the researchers.

The best inducement comes courtesy of “The language of wild bonobos” on Petri Dish where for only $1,500 you can get a bonobo named after your mother-in-law.