Crowdfunding for Science 101 [guest post]

Ethan and I have been watching the emergence of crowdfunding in science with great interest. We meant to blog about it, but our rate of blog idea generation is >> our rate of blog writing. So, when Mary Rogalski, a graduate student at Yale who is participating in #SciFund (one of the crowdfunding sites being run by ecologists) asked if we might be interested in blogging about this new phenomena, we thought this was an opportune time for us to recruit a knowledgeable guest blogger!  When you’re done reading her post, wander over to #SciFund and check out Mary’s project and the other intrepid young scientists experimenting with this new venue.

 Now, introducing Mary Rogalski….

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You may have heard of crowdfunding – it’s sort of a combination of venture capitalism and social networking.  Artists, musicians, and video game developers have netted thousands or even millions of dollars by gathering small donations from the interested public.  In fact, crowdfunding is now a multibillion dollar industry.

Until recently I was peripherally aware of this flurry of activity, but it was only after I heard of scientists using crowdfunding to support their research that I began to pay attention.   If you’ve ever applied for research grants you know how competitive the process can be.  This only seems to have intensified as we tighten our belts to deal with the ongoing recession.

Two students in my lab recently raised $7,000 for their master’s project by crowdfunding through the group Petridish.  Impressed with their success, I decided to investigate the possibilities.  A friend shared an article in Nature that discussed crowdfunding, featuring the #SciFund Challenge. #SciFund caught my eye for two reasons.  First, unlike some crowdfunding campaigns, participants receive funds even if they fail to reach their funding target.  Second, #SciFund’s mission to teach scientists to more effectively engage with the general public resonates with my own career goals.

I submitted a short description of my research to the #SciFund organizers, Jai Ranganathan and Jarrett Byrnes, and was deemed worthy of joining round 2 of the #SciFund Challenge!  I quickly found that crowdfunding requires a lot of time and energy.  Overall I would say that I have spent close to 40 hours creating my project description and video, and an hour or two per day over the past three weeks promoting my project.

A short video serves as the centerpiece of a #SciFund campaign.   In only 2-3 minutes I had a lot of information to convey.  I study ecological and evolutionary responses to pollution exposure over long time scales.  I work in lakes, using the sediment record to reconstruct changes in heavy metal contamination and cyanobacteria blooms over the past century.  Zooplankton resting egg banks in these same sediments provide a means of examining ecological and evolutionary trends over the same time scales.  I will hatch Daphnia from resting eggs to see which species were better able to tolerate polluted conditions.  Later I will examine evolutionary responses over time.

I struggled to explain my project in three minutes – not to mention, I had never made a video before!  I decided that people would be most interested in the fact that I can “resurrect” animals from the past to see how they were affected by environmental conditions that they experienced.  In focusing on the “how” of my research, I think I might have sacrificed a bit too much of the “why”.  Why do we even care about long-term effects of pollution?  (I can give you lots of reasons, but they didn’t end up in the video!)  Considering it’s my first attempt at making such a video, I do like how it turned out.

During the month of April, the 75 participants in the #SciFund Challenge created draft videos and written descriptions of our research.   We reviewed each other’s work, focusing on creating clear, compelling language.

When the Challenge launched on May 1, we were coached on how to best spread the word about our projects.  First I alerted my close friends and family about my crowdfunding campaign.  Once I received some traction, I reached out to my broader social networks, asking my friends and colleagues to spread the word.  From here, outreach is only limited by your own creativity and time investment.  Before beginning my crowdfunding adventure my exposure to the world of science media was limited.  I felt overwhelmed by the number and diversity of blogs out there, not to mention newspapers, journals, Facebook groups, and scientists that Tweet.  I also felt awkward promoting myself, especially before doing the research that I propose.  In the end I just jumped right in and did my best to wade through what for me represents a wealth of new opportunities to reach out to the public.

With the #SciFund Challenge coming to an end on May 31, I can reflect on my experience.  First, I have been overwhelmed and humbled by the support that my project has received from friends and family.  Crowdfunding also turned out to be a great networking opportunity.  I have connected with other ecologists through Twitter, a form of social media that I had completely avoided until now.  I even found out that there is another paleolimnologist in my own department at Yale!  We are going for a coffee next week to chat about our research.  These interactions began because of my search for research funds, but the end result has been so much richer.

So, will I continue to crowdfund my research?  Do I think it is the wave of the future for science funding?  Could crowdfunding ever replace NSF?  I think the answers to these questions are yes, maybe and probably not.  However, that elusive crowd of people interested in my research, outside of my friends and family, will take years to cultivate.   As I build my career as a scientist I will implement the lessons I have learned from crowdfunding and continue reaching out to audiences outside of academia.  My new blog is a start!

I think that crowdfunding may not be for everyone, and that some types of science might be a tougher sell.  Major research programs requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars will likely not be easily supported in this way.  But who am I to say?  Perhaps crowdfunding could take off and replace traditional sources of science research funding.  Only time will tell!

Mary Rogalski
PhD Candidate, 2014
Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

One Comment on “Crowdfunding for Science 101 [guest post]

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with crowdfunding. I think it is something more people should embrace, not only for funds it generates, but also for what it taught you about communicating with the public, and getting your work out there. Ultimately, we are all funded by the public, so the more we learn to share our ideas and communicate the importance of research, the better off everyone is. Just think, the communication efforts you make for crowd funding could have a benefit in increasing public interest in science, and funding for NSF and other sources. Good job!

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