Putting the science into crowdfunding

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Researchers have identified factors that can help make or break a science crowdfunding effort (Image: Shutterstock)

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How do you boost the chances of crowdfunding success for science projects? As it turns out success may not be down solely to the vagaries of its viral nature or the "sexiness" of the project. According to researchers at the University of Santa Barbara, who studied crowdfunding of science projects, more workaday things like consistent communication and simple enthusiasm are more important factors.

Crowdfunding is most often associated with the arts and (hopefully) ultimately tangible products. But scientists have been looking at it for a while now as an addendum to their regular funding. In fact, there are a number of websites like Experiment devoted solely to raising funds for research, while even fusion power has been the subject of a (unsuccessful) crowdfunding campaign on mainstream crowdfunding site Indiegogo. However, those in the arts have always better understood public engagement and fundraising as it is a necessary part of the job so often. How do you successfully crowdfund science?

Researchers Jarrett Byrnes and Jai Ranganathan at the University of Santa Barbara have found some interesting answers. Their project, #SciFund Challenge, organized 200 researchers to put together and run 159 crowdfunding projects and studied the success rates. Data collected on the projects included page views of crowdfunding sites, donation patterns and "detailed surveys of scientist-participants". This is, says the university, "the first study that quantifies what factors are needed for success in crowdfunding for science."

The key? Communication. Build an audience for your project then continue to "engage" with that audience throughout said project. This would seem rather obvious to most, even teenage public relations students. But the job of science is to quantify both the intuitive and the bleeding obvious. In fact, it was communication and what the scientists termed "passion" that determined donations more than the "sexiness" of the project.

Social media played an obvious role. The researchers looked at the networks and followers the scientists had on platforms like Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter, as well as contacts via email.

"Twitter and email, which get passed on to other people or organizations, had a huge impact on bringing people in to look at projects," Byrnes said. "We found that if people looked at a project, a certain percentage of that translated into people donating money to those projects."

Is this the panacea needed in an age when science budgets are being cut by governments in so many nations? Yes and no. Research is costly and US$10,000 (the top amount achieved, while the mean was $2,000) does not go far but it is certainly a help. Byrnes crowdfunded a research cruise to study measurement error in Channel Islands kelp forest surveys, a mundane-sounding outing to most lay people, but interesting enough when the right people are engaged and a scientist can speak with real enthusiasm for the work.

"Measurement error – could there be anything more boring?β€œ said Byrnes. "I had to dig really deep and find my interest in this work. The answer was telling people that in order to understand the ocean we need to know if we can actually measure it with accuracy.β€œ

However, armed with the right tools it’s hoped that scientists may be able to crowdfund bigger projects of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the future. And getting people passionate about science, enough so to back that passion with cash, is pretty exciting too.

The team's findings appear in the journal PLOS ONE.

Ranganathan outlines the study in the video below.

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