Looking for funding for your research project? Turn to the public with crowdfunding!

crowdfundingIn this post, Hedda’s own Mari Elken examines the idea of “crowdfunding” and its potential for funding research projects. 

Opening up the Ivory Tower and involving the public in research processes is a process that has gained prominence in recent years, a while ago we also wrote about “crowdsourcing” – where communities or groups of people outside traditional research environments provide their skills for research processes. But how about using the general public to finance your research project through “crowdfunding“?

Crowdfunding as a phenomenon has emerged in the business circles as a means to fund start-ups, and. In the business sphere, crowdfunding is considered one of the key developments for funding startups. Recenrtly, Forbes commentary about the development was: “Trust me. It’s going to be big“, as various social network sites have also shown interest in integrating with crowdfunding platforms.

A number of these platforms in more creativity related areas have gained massive support and have been around for some years already. For instance, Kickstarter is a platform for funding filmmakers, musicians, artists and designers – and this platform alone has had 4,7 million people pledge over 768 million dollars for funding over 47 000 projects, with a success rate of 44% of the projects reaching their goals.

With such potential in the world of business and creative arts as a means to find alternative funding sources – why not use this new arena for funding research? Granted, research is arguably often more expensive than your average artsy project, and it is more difficult to the public to make informed judgments about the quality of projects. However, sites for crowdfunding of research projects are in fact emerging.

Amongst else a crowdfunding site for science, SciFund Challenge, reported of a project that acquired 1,5 million dollars through crowdfunding. The aim of the project ARKYD – A Space Telescope for Everyone was to build an orbiting space telescope that had its long term aim to develop “low-cost robotic spacecraft to explore the thousands of resource-rich asteroids within our reach”. As a perk for the public who funds the project (depending on the level of funding provided, ranging anywhere between $10 to $10 000), the public can display their selected photo or graphic on the satellite’s external screen, donate observation time with the satellite to a school, university or museum, or even have an asteroid named after them.

While the satellite project sounds like a lot of fun, it is also more serious and traditional research output that is emerging from these developments. First publications with funding acquired from crowdfunding are appearing, as such indicating that it is not only the more fun projects that have achieved success with succeeding funding.

So, what are the options? One option is to go via Kickstarter, or Indiegogo, a similar platform that also has a similar focus on arts and small businesses. Furthermore, solely research focused crowdfunding sites are emerging as well, for instance ScienceDonors and Petridish.

How to achieve success? The questionnaires done with those who have participated in crowdfunding of projects indicate that the success formula is “effort times engagement“, in essence indicating that building and engaging an audience is essential. By potentially non-representative sample of looking into the projects that have made their targets, current crowdfunding sources seem to be somewhat skewed towards projects that focus on space, cute animals and beautiful wildlife. By no means underestimating the importance of this research, it is also quite easy to see how these would appeal to the general public and manage to gain support.

One can argue that researching higher education perhaps does not have the same sex-appeal and instant cute factor (aside all the charming researchers, of course). However, this also highlights the need for higher education researchers to think critically about why higher education research actually is of importance to the society and why the public should engage. This is by no means to imply that all research should be applied and should in all cases have a direct societal impact – but it means that it is important to communicate convincingly why different kinds of research is necessary.

In essence this is an exercise in communicating with the public. We live in the knowledge society – this is the big broad statement that tends to be repeated in a wide range of societal debates. Another point frequently made is that universities (and higher education in general) are the key institution for the knowledge society by producing both relevant knowledge and necessary training of the labour force. If we cannot make a solid case for the importance of higher education research at this point in history, there must be something wrong with our ways of communicating about what we do. And while inherently cynical, I am sure (or at least I hope) the public can appreciate more than the cute factor.

This kind of funding should probably not be seen as a substitute or a serious alternative for funding from traditional sources for projects that have gone through a rigorous peer review. However, many researchers have also experienced situations where projects are discarded for various reasons, and not always because of lack of quality.

While it does not replace the existing sources, crowdfunding can perhaps provide an alternative funding source for a bit more alternative projects. Those that are smaller scale, untraditional, unfashionable in terms of current political priorities, or just pure curiosity driven little “pet projects” that are for whatever reason not quite right for a full scale application to a funding agency. As these projects can often also provide new ways to think, perhaps crowdfunding can  lead to some interesting new avenues for research?