In the age of Kickstarter, tech-savvy scientists explore new ways to engage the public in their research
When Docky Duncan started crowdfunding for his quirky research project, he didn’t think he was doing anything out of the ordinary.
“If a local rock band can be successful at crowdfunding, we figured a bunch of scientists should be able to as well,” the University of British Columbia psychology researcher says with a laugh.
But in taking the road less traveled – by scientists, at least – this crowdfunding experiment places Duncan and his colleagues at the forefront of an emerging trend that could provide a novel source of funding for budget-conscious universities, and increase public engagement in science along the way.
That crowdfunding seemed natural to Duncan, an undergraduate researcher in UBC’s Visual Cognition Lab, should come as no surprise. The 23-year-old California native is among the generation of scholars who have come of age since the creation of online funding platforms like Indiegogo or Kickstarter, which has leveraged nearly a billion dollars across 52,000 projects since launching in 2009 in the US.
Emboldened by media coverage of their work, which uses the Ouija board to study human unconsciousness, Duncan and his students launched a six-week campaign on Microryza, a crowdfunding platform dedicated to science.
While they fell short of their campaign goal – and therefore didn’t receive the donations pledged online – their effort generated enough public interest to bring in roughly $1,200 through an anonymous donation. That was enough to pay for their next study, including lab space, research assistants and stipends for participants.
“Raising awareness by going directly to the public with our project helped us start the study right away,” Duncan says, indicating crowdfunding’s quick turnaround is one of its advantages over the longer traditional cycle of competing for grants, which can take years to secure.
‘Crowdfunding for Dummies’
As one of the first crowdfunding campaigns for research at UBC, the team had very few resources to draw on. “We could have used a guide,” he says, “like a Science Crowdfunding for Dummies.”
To engage friends and potential donors, the team created an array of promotional vehicles, including a project website, blog and Facebook and Twitter accounts. They even shot and edited a seven-minute video about their research.
“We scientists are notoriously bad at explaining our work to people outside our field,” Duncan says, adding that his team plans on sharing their experiences with other scholars and institutions. “This process forced us to articulate our work – and why it matters – to the public in a compelling way. That’s how you start the conversation with people.”
Ronald Rensink, a UBC professor of Computer Science and Psychology and the lab’s principal investigator, believes any project that gets researchers to hone their entrepreneurial skills and connect with the public is a worthy exercise.
“People want to engage with science, but there is a lack of meaningful opportunities,” says Rensink. “Crowdfunding has the potential to short-circuit the traditional, arm’s length relationship that most people have with the Ivory Tower.”
Rensink, whose work on unconsciousness, stress and visual perception has attracted research funding from NSERC and Boeing, says traditional funding sources will always remain by far the single most important source of research funding, but crowdfunding can help researchers be more nimble.
“Crowdfunding is great for small, short-term studies, and research that is more exploratory in nature, where grants may be scarce,” he says, naming SciFund Challenge as other science crowdfunding option.
The future of funding
Rensink believes universities may someday have units dedicated to helping researchers crowdfund, similar to current offices that help researchers secure grant funding.
Clearly we are not there yet. But early institutional examples have emerged at Carleton University, University of Virginia, Colorado State University and Cornell, and UBC is developing a university-specific crowdfunding tool.
Rensink has been busy responding to messages from as far away as Russia offering support and money for their work. Bolstered by the experience, Duncan and Rensink are preparing to launch their second crowdfunding campaign early in 2014. They hope to mobilize previous supporters, find new ones and develop other, non-monetary ways for the public to experience research up close.
“Our first campaign was us experimenting,” Duncan says. “Now that we know a bit more, this next one should be a lot more focused and effective,” he says. “We’re really excited to see where the process takes us – and what new doors it opens.”
Crowdfunding – not a ‘Field of Dreams’
For would-be crowdfunders, it is important to remember that only about half of campaigns meet their goal. The biggest barriers include the time and energy involved with running a successful campaign.
Few platforms offer charitable donation tax receipts, and provincial privacy laws mean B.C. researchers need to include a disclaimer for any campaigns on U.S.-based websites. There is also the question of whether crowdfunding projects should undergo ethics review, as other research projects must.
Hillary Gosselin, UBC’s Executive Director of Campus-Based Fundraising, suggests researchers seek expert assistance. “We recommend that researchers consult with their UBC fundraiser first to assess the viability of the project, the depth of the available social network and to develop a workable plan.”
Gosselin says UBC has been doing online peer-to-peer fundraising successfully for several years, where project participants use their social networks to gain significant support.” Projects such as the Peking to Paris for Parkinson’s and the Sauder Africa Initiative reinforce the importance of friends fundraising from friends online.
“In addition to UBC’s peer-to-peer platform, we are working on a UBC-specific crowdfunding tool that will conform to B.C. privacy legislation and for which UBC can issue a tax receipt,” she says. This will allow UBC to maintain a relationship with the donors, inform them of the impact of their gift and to recognize them as UBC supporters – important elements for sustaining and increasing donor support.
“Crowdfunding is not a ‘Field of Dreams,’” says Gosselin, referring to the popular movie. “Just because you build it, they won’t necessarily come. A well-thought out strategy and significant energy are required to get it in front of the right audience. Because crowdfunding lives in the social media space, you need a social network to send it to – preferably one that cares about your project and has the financial means to support it.”