Why I’m a little sour on crowdfunding


Here’s an idea for a new way to fund science: We can just create websites about our projects, and then ask taxpayers to vote for competing research proposals, based on which ones they see on social media.

I didn’t say it was a good idea. This is, essentially, what crowdfunding is.

I know (and also internet-know) a bunch of people who have used crowdfunding to support basic research. I’ve given to a few crowdfunded projects. I’m not a total rube.

There are a lot of good things about crowdfunding. It gets the public engaged and literally invested into a project. It helps scientists develop skills to share their work beyond their proximate scientific community. And it pays for stuff. And other good things, I suppose.

Crowdfunding has its drawbacks. Clearly there must be taxonomic and conceptual biases in who gets funded. For ecology and evolution, the dollar amounts to date are pretty skimpy, compared with big research grants. Some people have said it takes a lot of time. But that’s true for writing a traditional grant proposal as well.

But those aren’t the drawbacks that make me sour on crowdfunding. My main concern is that it just seems unfair.

Here’s what I learned from a recent Byrnes et al. paper about crowdfunding: The number of dollars that a project raises is highly correlated with the number of contributors. The number of contributors is highly correlated with the number of people who look at the website for the project. The number of people who look at the website for the project is highly correlated with the size of one’s social network.

If you have a big social network, then your crowdfunded project gets more money.

I don’t like that.

I would be uncomfortable pushing a crowdfunded project for myself or my students, knowing that it’s the breadth of my social network that would facilitate the success of the project. Since I’ve started this site, I’ve got a bigger social media presence than I did a couple years ago. I don’t think it would be fair for me to leverage this blog to get funding for science, when there are other people who don’t have a blog and wouldn’t get as much money.

I find out about crowdfunded projects because someone I know, or someone who knows someone I know, (or someone who knows someone who knows someone I know). So when I do contribute to a project, then I feel guilty that I’ve funded the ones through this route when it would have been more equitable to evaluate all crowdfunding proposals, or a randomly selected subset.

Most of public and private funding agencies are designed, at least in theory, to provide equitable access to research support. Bias exists, but at least the system is is designed with the goal of minimizing these deleterious biases.

Crowdfunding, by contrast, seems to amplify the biases that we are trying to eliminate in the sciences. It’s the enfranchised who get funded, and those who have connections to people who have the disposable income to support someone’s research project.

Let me put it this way: if a low-income undergraduate heavily worked their social network to crowdfund a summer research project, I bet they’d come up shorthanded. On the other hand, undergraduates who have more flush social connections would fare much better in getting money for their projects.

I do see that some people from traditionally disenfranchised groups might put the time and effort into building a strong social network, which then could result in more research funding. The bias for social-network-size could then trump the more traditional biases in science. But I don’t think that telling disenfranchised students and scientists to build a large social network to be able to crowdfund their research is the way to go. It might work for some, but the ability and access to build a large social network is, itself, inequitably distributed.

I know the world’s not fair. And science funding isn’t fair. But I’m skittish of an approach that seems to be inherently designed to be unfair. But there are a bunch of people I know, who have great values, and they’re doing crowdfunding. Maybe I’ll learn new things and change my mind, you never know. We all are part of so many unfair systems that are beyond our control. Maybe the freedom to choose against crowdfunding won’t be a reasonable choice in the future. I do hope, however, that taxpayers continue to rely on peer review to fund basic research, rather than voting for projects that they see through social media.

12 thoughts on “Why I’m a little sour on crowdfunding

  1. I agree with your reticence re: academic crowd funding, especially. It’s one thing if it’s helping get a company off the ground, or a new product launched, but science is often a harder sell than that as there’s not much tangible all the time. Pictures of expeditions are nice, perhaps, but it’s just another desk calendar. And it is a popularity contest. I think the constant I hear now is that networks matter and are important. So everyone really needs to get on board with having one and building one. It’s possible to somewhat plan years ahead for a future of crowdfunding; start that blog, open a twitter account, etc.

    It will never replace federal funding. The scale just isn’t big enough. for some applied projects where a company will start out of it, then sure, I can see it’s use, but if it’s just science and basic research, you can imagine the bias will be towards medical/health, not ecology, plant science, or other currently less popular fields.

    It is inherently unfair in a lot of ways, but the tools to build a network are accessible to more people than ever now too. I don’t think it’s a panacea, but I am glad it’s a tool out there for scientists to potentially use for some funding.

  2. Dear Terry,

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. I have sort of the same thoughts about crowdfunding as you express. I’m hesitant for the same reasons, while I also know some really great people that promote crowdfunding. So, I too will have to read up on it some more, and perhaps people will comment on your post, bringing up pros arguments that outweigh the cons arguments.

    I do have an additional issue with crowdfunding. It’s not only about the social network. It’s also about the scientific project itself. I bet that if one would compare a sexy project (e.g. one including charismatic focal organisms, say dolphins) with a much less sexy project (e.g. one on something people don’t generally care about, say slime molds), the less sexy project would on average attract less funding. That is my hunch, not backed up by any data. If my intutition is right, then there is a problem.

    I’m looking forward to more people bringing in their thoughts on the matter.



  3. My reaction to the Byrnes et al paper was the exact opposite! I thought: “How fantastic that there is finally a funding source that rewards scientists for consistently engaging with the public.” When I apply for funding to the NIH or NSF, they don’t care that I regularly blog about topics related to my research; that I regularly publish stories about science in popular press publications; that I teach continuing education classes aimed at providing science education to a group of people many of whom don’t have college educations. (NSF broader impacts had me hopeful until my PI told me that the kind of public engagement I do isn’t what they’re looking for, so we kept my activities to one sentence in our most recent grant application.)

    I haven’t tried crowdfunding my research yet, but I hope to do so soon. Is it unfair that I be able to use the network I’ve built up to get funding? I don’t think so — I’m engaging with people who are interested in my research for a lot of reasons beyond funding. Shouldn’t I be able to go directly to those people and say I’m doing research that interests them and is difficult to get funded federally? Should a researcher who hasn’t been interested in public engagement previously expect an enthusiastic response to a crowdfunding campaign?

    Should federal funding agencies use crowdfunding campaigns as ways to determine grant decisions? I wouldn’t think so. It’s a different funding stream with different priorities. I’m glad that the federal government hires experts to determine scientific merit and focuses on the kinds of research it does. But I do think there should be a way to ask the public directly what they’re interested in and I think rewarding the researchers who already have a relationship with the public is appropriate.

    Love your blog!


  4. Yes, crowd-funding can work for the quirky and interesting projects. But it needs to be on a topic that is in the public’s interest at the time. And I agree with what’s been said previously in that it won’t replace government/industry funding.

    I do think that popularity of funding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have now meant that some of the public (at least) expect some sort of phyiscal kudos or reward for handing over money to a project.

    There is a fear of those sites being used simply as another means for people to shop for goods and services. That, along with social media reach, will go a long way to determining the success or failure of a crowd-funding project.

  5. Jessica, that’s an interesting point, that crowdfunding could be seen as a reward for doing outreach. However, the tight association between social network size and the number of contributions appears to be independent of a history of outreach efforts.

    Most of the successful crowdfunding campaigns that I’ve noticed are by scientists who have a big social media profile — but with other scientists. I don’t think there’s necessarily a strong association between the quality and volume of outreach efforts and the number of social media connections. Some of the best scientists who I know who do amazing outreach, with huge impacts, have relatively few social media followers.

    Here’s hoping your call for more #scifund participants to comment yields some fruit!

  6. So, Terry, I wanted to push back a bit. I think in our zeal to say, “Expand the audience for your work! For science!” perhaps one of the more fascinating messages got lost. And that is – it’s NOT all about social networking. Or rather, personal social networking.

    Often when we hear the phrase, “Audience for your work” or think about crowdfunding, we immediately think friends and family – immediate social networks. Honestly, if that’s all that people rely on, their science crowdfunding will be a failure. Maybe it can get into the low thousands at best if they have a well-heeled social network, but it would stop there.

    Why? Well, relying on your personal social network is ultimately not scalable. Unless you get out there and glad-hand everyone you see or find a long-lost family you didn’t know you had, you’re not going to be able to build that network much larger.

    And, besides, this is only one part of our overall path diagram in Figure 8. To rely on this pathway alone is not tenable as a long-term strategy for making this work, nor does it achieve our ‘secret goal’ at #SciFund (which we have always been pretty open about) for crowdfunding being the carrot that gets scientists to build larger bridges with society.

    So what does work in terms of scalability? How do we achieve these goals? What is it that your students can begin to build now, and that you, an entrenched researcher, have much more access to and hence potential for higher crowdfunding success?

    1) Network generated by outreach activities: This can be online network (e.g., Twitter followers) or offline network for which you have gotten contact information (or maintained contact with the organization that gave you the opportunity to do the outreach). This can be anything from museum lectures to local Nerd Nites. Build and cultivate your local audience. Become, as Craig McClain calls it, a “nerd of trust” for the community around you, and keep them aware of what you are doing.

    In many ways, the further you go in your academic career, the bigger advantage you should have here. You have the time to cultivate your professional persona, time to get it out there, time to become involved with local opportunities to become a community leader or source of information on a topic.

    2) Non-Govermental Organizations: As this is a ‘eyeballs’ game, to some extent, how do you explode out well beyond the reach of your current network? We found (and discuss) many scientists who can make links to NGOs of any stripe – from conservation organizations to advocacy groups to interest groups are able to quickly expand network reach if those NGO contacts translate into them in turn contacting their own membership base. This has happened in a few projects so far, and where it happens, it’s powerful. Again, this is somewhere that a professor, or someone who works to connect their research to groups outside of the lab, has a lot of power and agency. You are known and trusted. For students who are part of on-campus or off-campus organizations who are either interested in their research or supporting those students (e.g., URM student groups, etc) there is also the benefit of these organizations having connections to still other programs or funders who might be interested in the work. So, again, a lot of opportunity here that comes out beyond just a social or even outreach generated network. It’s not one we quantified very well in our surveys to date, as it’s blipped up larger and larger as we’ve gone forward. We hope to have better numbers on this in the future.

    3) Media – I have to say, we were shocked at the strong connection to number of journalists contacted. We really thought that people would just be shrugged off. But this was not always the case. Media is a powerful tool to reaching a much wider audience than one could anyway – also making connections to organizations with wider membership that might pass it on to their own lists. We did not quantify whether people were contacting media in collaboration with their university, but anecdotally that seemed to be common (we’ll check into that in the future – science in progress!) which may have increased success rates. To get a journalist to cover your work, you need to be able to make it and your story compelling. Again – it’s outreach and connecting your work outside of the Academy. It’s something that you, as faculty, have a much greater ability to do than your students, but if you support your students in this effort, this is a great teaching opportunity in terms of the importance of outreach and how to do it right.

    4) Citizen Science – this is something for which we have waaay too low of a sample size to test, although we talk about it in our discussion. The three biggest science crowdfunding projects to date have all had very significant citizen science components. Send in your own microbial samples! Take some time as an astronomer on a space telescope! (or on a lower funding level, go tag sharks!) These are all highly successful projects that directly involved people in doing the research. A Citizen Science campaign is no easy beast, implying that it’s one that a PI would need to work on with their students (or have a grad student as the primary leader with the vision and followthrough to make it happen). But, it’s the easiest to use to make a direct connection between science and people. If it’s a project you think folk will want to do – crowdfunding or no – and you’re going to do the outreach work to promote it anyway, why not incorporate crowdfunding as one of those outreach platforms?

    So, I hope this addresses the immediate social network issue. There are a lot of successful pathways to crowdfunding. The thing they really have in common is being able to find a way to get the compelling story of your science to a broad audience, and then engaging with that audience to bring in funds for your work.

  7. I’m glad you said you learned something from the PLOS ONE paper. I’m sure I have some papers where nobody felt like they learned anything after readings them.

  8. It seems like part of the question is where the money will go if it doesn’t go toward science though. If a researcher with a large network sets up a crowdfunding effort and gets donations, does that take away from the donations that other researchers would otherwise receive, or would the money instead go toward things other than science? This is something that could be studied (and hasn’t yet, to my knowledge), but it seems like if people didn’t give the money to science, they’d do something else with it. Maybe better some science than no science?

    On the other hand, perhaps it would be neat for scientists to collaborate on putting together large crowdfunding efforts, and then sending all the money collected to NSF or NIH or research-funding non-profits (assuming those all accept donations). Then it could be distributed as grants in the usual way, presumably based on proposals’ merit rather than proposers’ popularity.

  9. The Cornell Lab and Ornithology, in conjuction with the Audubon Society has crowdsourced citizen science for years, and like other advocacy organizations, provide information on how individuals can fund specific projects all the time.

    While certainly scientific research should be judged as objectively as possible, and presumably funded as objectively as possible, perhaps an objective 3rd party organization would be the one who would present a variety of peer reviewed projects which could then be presented to the public.

    Or maybe the model is more like the Los Angeles researcher who needed money to buy a piece of lab equipment to better study the ebola virus. Not content to wait for the wheels to turn for her many grant submissions, she opted for a crowdfunding solution, along with a mini media campaign to get her machine. No doubt there were other researchers who could have benefited from that money, but she was the one who got it out there. Maybe it’s not fair comparing these examples but let’s say $10 in my taxes goes to fund science. When it all is said and done, probably $3-4 gets to the actual hands of the researcher, less if counting indirects.

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