Crowdfunding: What's in It for Scientists?

Originally Published in Scientific American

Louisa Edgerly learning to paddle a pirogue in during her research trip to the Republic of Congo. Photo credit: Louisa Edgerly


It seemed like no one was willing to take a chance on Louisa Edgerly. She had been working for months to get funding for her research trip to the Republic of Congo–nothing came. Her flight was booked and her equipment ready, but she knew she couldn’t fund herself for two months in the field.


In near desperation she created a project campaign on, a science based crowdfunding website. 50 days later, and only two days before her flight, Edgerly had raised $7,330- just over her goal of $7,000.


For emerging scientists like Edgerly, crowdfunding offers more than a chance to do research. It is a way to get a foot in the door.


A growing number of scientists are turning to a new channel for research funding–the masses. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have enabled entrepreneurs, artists, and musicians to pursue their project dreams, and now scientists are finding their way in too. But since Kickstarter changed its policy regarding scientific research, a growing number of research-based websites are cropping up providing a catalyst that connects scientists to potential donors.


Why crowdsource?


Louisa Edgerly successfully funded her global health research trip to the Republic of Congo on the crowdfunding site Petridish. Photo credit: Louisa Edgerly 

In 2011 Edgerly had found the perfect project to pursue–researching the communication strategies of non-profit groups in preventing global pandemics. She found the International Conservation and Education Fund(INCEF) working in the Republic of Congo on preventing animal to human diseases, like Ebola and monkey pox, which come from eating bush meat.


Her goal was to study global health communication methods settings. From there she could develop new environmental and health communication protocols for non-profit groups. She discovered quickly that this was not going to be enough to impress research-funding institutions.


“The difficulty is that funding usually goes to people with proven track records,” said Edgerly. “Traditional” funding is usually obtained via grants from National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health. The awards are limited and highly competitive. In 2012, 48,622 research proposals were submitted to the NSF, and only 24% of those received financial awards (records here).


As a recent PhD student with no research history to speak of, Edgerly had little hope. Secondly, the application process is a grueling affair. The application itself takes months, then an additional six months of waiting, she said.


This can be a tough barrier for researchers on a timeline. Like Edgerly, some projects are very time specific–based on seasons, travel arrangements, or subject of research (in this case, human and animal interactions). Opportunities might pass by while scientists wait for the funds to come through. Some might be able to fund their own research until a grant comes, but that is not a ready option for most. On the other hand, crowdsourced research can get feedback within two months or less.


Dave Perlman just launched a campaign on Microryza to fund new meditation research. Photo credit: the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds 

That was one of the motivations for Dave Perlman, a mediation researcher at Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM). Perlman’s lab just launched their own crowdsourced project on Microryza titled “How does meditation help oneself, and others?” His goal is to discover if there is a relationship between personal wellbeing and acting compassionate towards others.


Perlman said that crowdfunding provides a way around the arduous funding process, but also has an unexpected benefit.


“By communicating directly with the public, researchers are getting a better idea of what research is needed,” said Perlman.


But communication is a two-way street. When scientists come out to talk about their research, they have an opportunity to raise public awareness.


“You have scientists doing research, but they don’t engage with the public, then people don’t know about the research,” said Andrew Schoen, Perlman’s research assistant. “[Crowdfunding] allows you to show people why this research matters.”


This is why it is important for neuroscientists to engage the public, said Perlman. Having just begun his own crowdsource campaign on Microryza in August, Perlman already feels more connected to the people, his donors. “Instead of being in an ivory tower, it is a two-way street communication,” he said.


Will crowdfunding replace grants?


Returning from a successful trip to the Congo, Edgerly said that crowdsourced research doesn’t just raise public awareness, but gains public support.


Campaigning for crowdfunding “made me talk about my research with people,” said Edgerly. Networking for funds in just two months, she pushed herself to ceaselessly interact with her extended community. “Amazingly, I found out so many people were interested in it- people would tell me, ‘oh, I ‘m fascinated with Ebola!” she said with a chuckle.


The connections she made through the experience have continued past her Petridish deadline. Her networking found her a place to test her findings with Public Health-Seattle & King County. Through a course she developed, her and up to ten students will be using community-based communication strategies to inform people about their healthcare options under the Affordable Healthcare Act.


But despite her accomplishment, Edgerly does not see crowdsourced research as a sustainable method for scientists. “I don’t see it as revolutionizing the game,” she said. “Already established researchers are still more likely to get funding–it is not for creating a career,” but it can be a place to start.


While crowdsourced science may not be changing the funding game, undeniably–it is making scientists think more seriously about connecting to the public. Any successfully funded project on Microryza or Petridish proves that people are interested in scientific discovery, and want to be a part of it.


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