Thursday, 11 June 2015

Crowdfunding Research: Could it bring scientists and the public closer together?

Research funding comes from a few, fairly limited placesWith the increase in crowdfunding platforms  online  there's an opportunity to bolster funding from traditional routes with additional cash direct from the public pocket. What this new funding route might bring about, rather unintentionally, is increased understanding and trust between the public and scientists as it brings them closer together through this new, more direct, funding model. In the long-term it could also contribute to the personalisation of science and the democratisation of scientific research.  

Traditionally, researchers have received research funding by applying for competitive grants that are overseen by governments, charitable bodies and/or private investors. Although these grants are distributed by the research bodies and funders, other than private investment a significant portion of the money comes from the public's pocket, either through donations or taxes.

These funds are then distributed through the grant system. Researchers apply to a grant and a panel of expert reviewers decides who gets what. This decision is made in private but the projects that are funded are shared with the public. The competitive model has its problems but overall it has proven to be a success, in theory ensuring that the best research gets funded and that the research environment is continually challenged to be better. But, as I mentioned earlier funding pots are getting smaller and there isn't enough funding to go around the excellent research both in the US and the UK

There's a social responsibility for researchers to share the work that they are doing with  the public who are funding much of the research through their taxes. Researchers also have to report to the grant funders, their own institutions and often their own supervisors. It's a big task. This method also contributes to dehumanising the process of 'science' and also the 'public' creating an unintentional divide between us and them. The 'public' don't see this method of funding dissemination and the scientists don't see who and where the money is really coming from. Many efforts go into bridging this gap as the benefits of having the perceived two camps coming together mean that better research is conducted.

Removing the 'middle man' allows the public to directly interact with the researcher and for the researcher to see who is funding their work. Although there is no barrier (other than time) preventing these interactions the dynamic of crowdfunded research is different. Rather than investment from an institution, funder or large organisation the researcher receives a personal cheque, from someone  who wants to support the project and know more about the project. They have personally invested in it and the researcher sees that investment.

Experiment.com is just one site specialising in supporting researchers in crowdfunding research projects.

This week I spoke to Marissa McMahan, a PhD candidate at Northeastern University about her experience of using experiment.com to crowdfund a portion of her research on black seabass in the Gulf of Maine. Before using experiment.com she didn't (and still doesn't) use more traditional social media channels to talk about her work. She had done outreach with school groups but she, like many others, wondered about the value of sharing work via social media platforms - is it just self promotion? Is anyone really interested in what I am doing? Why bother?


Her project was fully funded within 35 days by a public audience, some funders she knew, others she didn't. She realised that her direct funders had a genuine interest in the work she was carrying out (on Black Seabass movement in the Gulf of Maine). 

To encourage people to donate to her research she realised that her communication needed to be clear and understandable to a wide audience. She also offered 'incentives' which are commonplace in crowdfunding projects, where if you pledge a certain funding level you receive extra benefits. She chose to offer increased information about the project and photos from her field trips as she worked on the boat. She spoke to me enthusiastically about how she uses experiment.com like her own, personal, social network to connect with her donors.

She shares updates on the research but also letting them know what she is doing, for example stuffing 1500 envelopes for a large survey. A survey that has actually stemmed from her interaction with her public donors. Not only was she telling them information they also contacted her about things they had noticed and recorded in the local area - from when certain fish had been caught but also from fishermen letting her know what the fish they had been catching had been eating. It's bringing a whole new social aspect to her work. 

She sees the correspondence not as a chore, but as an integral part of her work. Even getting excited about sharing her work with the public audience. 

Local publicity about the project has also helped her connect with a wider audience at public meetings and forums. 

Her perspective on her own work and her perceptions on working with the public have changed completely, " Scientists aren't an exclusive club, They should feel responsibility to interact in a timely manner with the public about their work" 

But the experience of speaking directly to funders made her realise the importance and value of bringing the public into research that is taking place. It hadn't occurred to me before then that this method of funding you are achieving a level of engagement with the public that can be difficult to achieve via traditional routes.

There are still lots of questions and debate to be had around the process of crowdfunding research. How can the public be sure they are funding quality research and that scientists don't over-promise what they will achieve with the funds they get?

For me, meeting with Marissa offered a completely new perspective on how funding via this route isn't just about the monetary value. The process can really increase engagement in a way that brings the public into the research process and can make the research, and the researcher, better.

This June I am undertaking a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship to look at the communication of science via social media. I will be traveling to North America and I am looking to connect with people as I go. You can read more about it here.



4 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful concept for the future of research funding - it will also allow for more research to take place if the public can get involved firsthand.. Also increasing awareness and knowledge as to what the science community is up to. :) How wonderful that she was able to get her research funded, kudos to her for being so proactive and showing great ingenuity in her research. Thanks for sharing and have a great one Heather! -Iva

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  2. For anyone interested, we just launched our platform, Endeavorist.org, for this very purpose. We support crowdfunding of all kinds of scientific research, as well as general STEM, citizen science, education, and conservation projects. Our goal is to bring citizens and scientists together to build knowledge openly and democratically, but we believe crowdfunding isn't the sole solution to today's disconnect between science and citizens. To further our cause, we've built a special kind of social network for both citizens and scientists to engage with each other on a more permanent basis than the once-off encounters of crowdfunding. With these tools combined, we're super excited about the possibilities.

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    Replies
    1. Hi! Thank you so much for leaving a comment. This sounds like an interesting platform and I would be keen to learn more about it.

      I agree, I don't think crowdfunding is the one answer but I think it's a very interesting and useful tool. I hadn't appreciated its ability to bring people together around a project until I met with Marissa.

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