When a professor from a small liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania decided to take on a massive research project two summers ago, he went through the usual, often futile, process of applying for federal and private grants. But when funds were short a year later, he went down a nontraditional route -- turning to the public and the Internet for help.
In 50 days, Juniata College’s Chris Grant and his research partner, Gina Lamendella, raised $10,800 through a crowdfunding website called iAMscientist. The money was used to fund an ongoing project on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on Pennsylvania’s stream ecosystems.
“There were a lot of initial questions, but we’ve paved the way for other people at smaller institutions to use this funding as a mechanism,” Lamendella said. “I think it’s certainly the way of the future.”
As a result of increased competition and diminishing federal research funding, it is becoming more difficult for university researchers to bring their scholarly endeavors to life. Though still in their relatively early stages, crowdfunding platforms are becoming a popular mechanism for scientists to raise cash -- quickly.
Though there are differences from one platform to the next, crowdfunding sites function similarly: A person posts a description of his or her idea asking for small contributions from the community at large, and those who feel passionately about the project can donate. The fund-raiser is usually given a specific amount of time to reach his or her goal, or the backers are not charged. Typically the crowdfunding site receives a percentage of the amount the fund-raiser earns, and backers can receive “rewards” from the fund-raiser for pledging certain amounts of cash.
Kickstarter, which launched in 2009, is the world’s largest funding platform for artists, musicians, filmmakers and designers. While many projects fail, some have found massive success on the site -- like a video game that gained $4,188,927 from 74,905 backers.
Replicating Kickstarter’s model, websites that are used specifically to crowdfund scientific or technology-based projects have launched in recent years. Some of these sites include iAMScientist, Microryza, Petridish and FundaGeek.
Claude Sheer, the CEO of the Bedford, Mass.-based iAMScientist, said he teamed up with the site's founder because he wanted to help young researchers from less-prestigious institutions who would have a difficult time receiving funds from big granting agencies. Sheer said the average age of a recipient of a National Institutes of Health R01 grant is 43.
"So if you're a 25-year-old postdoc, you still have 18 years of being a lab slave before you're going to run your own research," Sheer said.
Sheer said every researcher that has proposed a project on iAMScientist has been connected with an academic institution. He said he is open, though, to the idea of using the website to help fund research from others, such as high school science departments.
Crowdfunding for academic research has taken off outside the United States as well. In May, Deakin University in Melbourne launched a partnership with the creative crowdfunding site Pozible, making it the first Australian university to use crowdfunding to pursue research funding. The university is looking to fund a wide range of projects, from a study on the impact of salinity on marine invertebrate species to the development of an app that will allow people to point their smartphones where Australian photographer Mark Strizic once stood and re-shoot his images of Melbourne.
“This partnership with Pozible allows the community to help us identify what problems they feel need solving, then provides a unique way to help to solve them through funding support," Lee Astheimer, a Deakin professor, said in an interview.
Also last month, the University of Virginia announced a partnership with crowdfunding platform USEED, Inc., which focuses on fund-raising for university research or student-proposed projects. The site will feature up to 10 research projects from the university that are seeking between $19,000 and $35,000 each.
Despite the success some researchers have had with crowdfunding, Juniata’s Grant warns that the practice is “not for the faint of heart.”
“I think a lot of people will try it. And they’ll be dissuaded by the amount of effort on their end,” Grant said. “You’ll have a lot of one-time users.”
Grant said he had expected iAMScientist to help with marketing the research project or to help find backers. But that work was left up to him and Lamendella.
“I essentially sent the link out to any social media platform I knew,” Lamendella said. “Reaching out to donors on your own is obviously very time-consuming.”
Her efforts included getting undergraduates involved and giving presentations to potential donor groups, such as the Little Juniata River Association. Grant said he expected to receive many small donations from multiple backers, but instead received a few much larger donations of $1,000 and $2,000.
Despite the time commitment, Jonathan Thon said he is a strong advocate for scientific researchers to begin using crowdfunding platforms. Thon is a research fellow in medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, as well as a soon-to-be professor in Canada. He has been vocal about crowdfunding in his posts on The Black Hole — a blog about “issues of interest to early-career scientists in Canada.”
Thon sees the benefits of crowdfunding as twofold. More “high risk” projects that the government would not regularly invest in can receive funding, and the public can directly engage with the research being produced.
He noted that funding rates for scientists have “dropped dramatically”; for example, the National Institutes of Health funds about 10 percent of projects, while 20 percent are likely of “excellent quality.”
“What review panels have started doing is that they’re investing in projects that are guaranteed to succeed one way or another,” Thon said -- often projects with short time-frames.
Additionally, crowdfunding holds “scientists directly accountable” to the public.
“There’s been a lot of criticism lately about government investing in projects that make no sense to the public,” Thon said.
Grant and Lamendella said engaging with the public was their favorite aspect of using crowdfunding versus applying for grants to raise funds. Their research project, which is continuing, involves collecting chemical and biological samples from 26 streams in western Pennsylvania at various stages of Marcellus Shale fracturing exploration, to assess the drilling’s impacts. The money raised through crowdfunding allowed more undergraduate researchers to be hired to assess the streams.
Lamdendella said many of the donations on iAMScientist came directly from people who were affected by fracking in their “own backyards” and were genuinely invested in the scientific research.
“It’s the great thing about crowdfunding. You’re gathering public interest, and people really feel passionate about your idea,” she said. “It makes us feel like our hearts, our minds and our money are in the right place.”
Despite the benefits, some are critical of using crowdfunding for academic research.
One question raised by crowdfunding research versus traditional funding is the universities' overhead. Sheer said typically 30 percent of research funding goes to the university to cover costs that are directly or indirectly related to the projects.
"The question is, how does the university oversee the funding process without taking a share of the revenue?" Sheer said.
Another issue with crowdfunding, Thon said, is that the researchers cannot guarantee that their project will come to fruition. And since there is no institution reviewing the legitimacy of the scientists who post their projects on the websites, there is a risk in donating. To combat this problem, Thon proposes creating a national crowdfunding website by major federal research institutes. These institutes could “screen an initial group of applications” and make sure the scientists have enough background in the research they are proposing and the means to do it.
“I don’t think it could possibly do away with the current grant process,” Thon said. “But I think this could be a nice complement to it."