How about crowd-funding your next research project?

Posted by sustainable on November 4, 2013 

 As research funding from traditional sources becomes increasingly competitive, many researchers are now turning to the public to directly fund their work. In this blog, Mark Reed and Anna Evely from the Sustainable Learning team examine the opportunities and some of the pitfalls, to help you decide if your next project might be crowd-funded.

Crowd-funding websites like Kickstarter and IndieGogo are increasingly funding projects in technology, arts, campaigns and non profit community work, with some projects raising significant sums of money. Projects listed on these crowd funding websites offer investors a range of rewards, based on the amount they are willing to invest, with small rewards available for as little as a £1 investment, rising to personalized products and events to reward larger investments.

Now a number of websites have started to offer opportunities to invest in research, for example Petridsish,MicroryzaRocketHub and GeekFunder. These initiatives are less about getting your hands on the latest gadget before it hits to shops, and more based more on the warm glow of knowing you’ve advanced knowledge and made the world a better place. Having said this, many projects do offer personal rewards.

As funding for research becomes increasingly tight from traditional sources, the research community is beginning to turn towards the public as a means to raise funds. Crowd funding research involves raising money directly from the public, with the research project idea articulated on a dedicated project page along with an invitation for individuals to help fund it. The project goes ahead once enough money is raised. It’s an all or nothing approach. If the project fails to reach it’s target then funds will not be released.

So, could you crowd-source your next research project? And what are the pitfalls of this new approach to funding?

What sort of projects are likely to get crowd-funded?

The answer to this question depends upon the sort of project you want to fund. If it will lead to a technology or product or some other tangible output that members of the public may want to own or experience, then the chances are that you may be onto a winner. A successful crowd-funded project needs to be beautifully and effectively presented and explained, making it clear how it will make a difference. You’ll need a strategy to drive people to your project page and get them interested enough to read about what you plan to research (blogging, tweeting, getting traditional media coverage etc.). To do this, many crowd-funded projects offer affordable and desirable rewards to investors.

Most crowd-sourced research projects are relatively small – a few hundred or thousand pounds. Therefore, current crowd funding of research is often used for “seed-corn” funding bigger projects, testing ideas and prototypes, which can then attract larger amounts of funding from more traditional research funding sources. However, with a bit of clever project design, researchers can ‘think big’ when using crowd funding, and divide projects into self-contained work packages that can work effectively on their own. Then, if more than one work package is funded, they will link together to form a larger, longer-term project.

Importantly for us as researchers, crowd-sourcing our work can also open the doors to better public engagement and science communication. Science works best when the public is on board, and we should all be able to explain the importance of our work.  After all, most scientific funding comes from the government, meaning that we’re ultimately beholden to the public to demonstrate and embrace the value of our work. As a result, research projects that are crowd-funded engage the public in emerging areas of science. They also represent an emerging form of collaboration between the researcher and those who use their research, where the public can be informed and inform the research process. For example ‘FundaGeek’ enables discussion forums where the public can debate the value of a project alongside any moral concerns.

 

Tips for a successful crowd-funding campaign

If you think you’ve got an idea that might fit the crowd-funding model, then here are a few tips that will help you make your research idea become reality:

  • Take a look at successfully funded projects to get inspiration for the sorts of rewards you might be able to offer investors, from highly affordable options to more expensive options for larger investors. We recommend that you look at projects that have been successful in areas with a longer history of crowd-funding e.g. technology, charity and the arts, to get ideas about what works.
  • Purge your project of all jargon, so you can communicate your project in a way that excites and inspires people to fund you – something most researchers need to practice
  • Creating a slick video to promote the project is a must, to make it as accessible as possible to potential investors (many crowdsourcing websites require this anyway). Make sure your presentation and message is personal, visual, original/unexpected and if possible appeals to people at an emotional level.
  • Set a realistic funding goal, dividing large projects into self-contained, smaller projects (effectively work packages) that are more likely to get funded
  • Pay particular attention to creating a social media presence and wider communications strategy with clear aims.  Systematically consider who your audience is, their preferences and interests, the sorts of media and communications they are most likely to respond to, and the offer/reward that people in your audience are likely to respond to. Build your social media following before you launch your campaign, and think about how to target people who are well connected to your target audience (e.g. large Twitter followings), so they can promote your campaign for you. Promote your project as widely as possible via social media (see our Top Twitter Tips for Academics), and then via your personal and professional networks.

 

What problems might I encounter?

There are a number of practical and ethical challenges to crowd-funding research. First, not all investors may honor their pledges, and so the eventual sum raised may fall short of the target. Although websites take payment details electronically from investors, credit checks are often performed many months prior to the end of the campaign when payments are actually taken. This may mean it is not possible to fulfill your commitments to those who do honor their pledges, and in the worst case scenario they may demand refunds or sue the project.

Second, not all crowd-funding platforms have a peer-review or ethics review process to screen projects before they go online. We can all think of projects that we thought were water-tight when we submitted them, that came back from peer-review or ethics review with fundamental problems that meant they were un-fundable. In this case, you may discover these fundamental flaws only one you’ve started spending on the project, and may not be able to bring it to completion. Even worse, such projects may inadvertently put members of the public at risk and lead to unintended consequences. Take a look at the policies of different crowd-funding websites, and use sites that have some sort of review process. This will also mean your project isn’t sitting beside pseudo-science projects that you would not want to be associated with. Particularly useful are sites that include discussion forums where you can engage with potential investors to debate the validity and ethics of what you are doing. In this way, engaging with crowd-funding actually has the potential to enhance the quality of the research you develop. It is also always wise to get feedback from friendly colleagues before you submit anything for funding, whether to traditional funders or a crowd-funding website.

Third, some people worry about the fact that you have no way of vetting the people who fund your research, or knowing if they may have a conflict of interest – for subjects where you have to declare your funders and any conflicts of interest as part of the publication process, this concerns some people. Although this is something to think about, we’ve not heard of any projects that have fallen foul of this at publication stage, and there is a contrary argument that the number of different people funding your research immediately demonstrates the perceived value and likely impact of your work.

 

So should I crowd-fund my next research project?

Obviously it depends on the type of project you are trying to fund, and how easily you think it will resonate with the public. The answer will depend to a large extent on the sort of research field are you working in, and the likely risks of the project going wrong, either in terms of the research itself or health and safety? It might feel risky to try this for the first time, but why not start small with a low-risk, low-cost project that can lay the ground for something more ambitious later?

This new funding model may be particularly attractive to early career academics and those who are good at communicating their research to the public. Unlike many traditional funders who require you to have a permanent or “tenured” academic post before they’ll even look at your funding application, anyone can apply for crowd-funding. You can potentially be up and running with your new project in a few months, compared to the long and drawn-out traditional review process, giving you the platform you need for the bigger projects that will get you greater job security. Crowd-funding may also be increasingly popular with more established researchers, who are seeking new ways to engage with the likely users of their work and generate impact, given funders’ increasing focus on the impact agenda.

Crowd funding research is in its early stages. It is therefore unsurprising that its many potential benefits have largely been overlooked by the research community. This approach isn’t all about getting money for research; it is a new way of doing research in collaboration with your funders – the public – giving you an instant route to public engagement in your work. For us, crowd-funding is about the democratization of science and making sure your research resonates with the wider interests and needs of society.

Prof Mark Reed is an interdisciplinary researcher specialising in knowledge exchange, stakeholder participation and the value of nature. He obtained his PhD from the University of Leeds, where he was a Senior Lecturer till he became Director of the Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability at the University of Aberdeen. He is now a professor at Birmingham City University with >50 publications in peer-reviewed international journals, where he is leading the REF submission for his School. His work has been covered by the Guardian, Radio 4, Radio Scotland and international media, and he has led research projects worth over £10M. He has designed and led >50 workshops with end users of research in the UK and internationally, and has developed training in knowledge exchange and participatory methods for the UN Environment Programme, DEFRA, Scottish Government, the British Ecological Society and a range of UK Universities. Find out more about his work at:www.markreed.webeden.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @lecmsr 

Dr Anna Evely is co-founder and director of project MAYA. Anna’s background is in sustainability and conservation she is passionate about social media and permaculture. Anna is an interdisciplinary eco researcher/campaigner/entrepreneur. Academically she continues to work with the Sustainable Learning project on Knowledge Exchange research and is an associate of the Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability. Anna has published on environmental sustainability and behaviour change. Before founding project MAYA, Anna worked as a lecturer, post-doctoral researcher and conference organiser and has acted as an advisor on social media strategy to a number of academic institutions and chairities. Find out more about her work at:http://www.annaevely.com or follow her on Twitter @AnnaEvely.