Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.
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Scientists just need to put forth some effort.
(Photo: Kritchanut/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Kritchanut/Shutterstock)

Many scientists aren't very good at sharing their research with the public. As a 2012 study on science communication points out, they often face considerable professional pressure not to waste time "dumbing down" their work for mass consumption. Sometimes, also, they're just too busy with what's under their microscopes to care.

But better outreach, says Jarrett Byrnes, a University of Massachusetts-Boston biologist, may be exactly what scientists need to keep their work afloat. He recently published a study about the role of public outreach in crowdfunding for scientific research—a source of income increasingly considered a possible counterweight to tightening federal support.

While arts and technology projects make out handsomely from crowdsourcing websites like Kickstarter—they raked in close to $200 million in six months last year alone, Byrnes notes—science funding has yet to take off. Byrnes and the study's three co-authors believe this is largely due to a misconception of how projects actually make money; scientists tend to regard crowdfunding as “magic money” that comes from luck of a viral hit, not effort, they contend.

To see if he could dispel this belief, Byrnes and his collaborators ran a one-and-a-half-year crowdfunding experiment through a program called #SciFund Challenge. The experiment put 159 actual, peer-vetted research proposals through campaigns on the crowdfunding platform RocketHub. The fundraisers had standardized durations, and the researchers were taught how to run a campaign. Byrnes' aim was to test which factors and solicitation techniques brought in the most donations.

Overall, the experiment raised $252,811 for the various projects from 3,904 donors. Projects received an average of $2,000 each, ranging from a few hundred dollars to $10,000. Byrnes' analysis traced patterns of Web traffic from social media sites and other referral networks, as well as how active the scientists were in promoting their work. The secret to success, he found, was indeed the participating scientists’ abilities to tap their networks and draw more eyes to their pages, even when their proposal didn't have mass appeal.

“Twitter and email, which get passed on to other people or organizations, had a huge impact on bringing people in to look at projects,” Byrnes says in a press release. “We learned that in order to raise more money for a project you need to build an audience for your work and engage that audience.”

Sure, this might be common knowledge to anyone with a basic understanding of public relations. But for science, it’s important: Previous researchers have proposed good crowdfunding practices, but Byrnes' experiment provides concrete evidence that science, like anything else, can rely on everyday people for drumming up support. Scientists don't need to worry about sacrificing integrity to get better funding, the results suggest; they've just got to step away from the microscope and try to get the word out.

“To create a crowdfunding proposal, scientists must talk about their work in a way that appeals to people outside of the academy,” Byrnes writes. “They must be good science communicators, and then are rewarded for their efforts with money for their research.”