FWD 2 Crowdsourcing Science: A New Frontier in Fundraising

HerbalEGram: Volume 9, Number 8, August 2012

Crowdsourcing Science: A New Frontier in Fundraising 

Crowdsourcing websites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo encourage fans of musicians, filmmakers, amateur inventors, writers, and other creative professionals to financially support projects like independent documentaries or self-published novels. These sites have experienced great success, with the leading crowdsourcing website Kickstarter raising $267 million for more than 61,000 projects since its creation in 2008.1 Although some artistic projects do intend to have meaningful impact within the world, most crowdsourcing websites are largely void of such endeavors and even forbid projects that seek to raise money for charity or “causes.”2 So, the crowdsourcing pool ends up including many frivolous projects, such as one that proposed the creation of the “world’s largest jockstrap,”3 while others struggle to find a home. Scientific research projects have been late to join the crowdsourcing game, as evident in both Kickstarter and IndieGoGo’s lack of a “science” or “research” project category.

Within the last year, however, scientific crowdsourcing opportunities have been increasing. In March of 2012, a new platform called PetriDish.org launched with the objective of hosting just scientific projects.4 The site welcomes applications from any researcher affiliated with a university, nonprofit, or other such institution who is proposing to crowdsource a project in a variety of fields, including archaeology, biology, conservation, ecology, health, and natural history. Several PetriDish projects have raised significant funds, such as one aiming to buy a “supercomputer” in order to search for moons in other solar systems, which collected approximately $12,000 in just 30 days.5 

About a year prior to PetriDish, 2 California scientists created an initiative called the #SciFund Challenge with the goal of increasing the popularity and success of scientific crowdsourcing projects.6 A volunteer-run organization, SciFund serves as a community-support base for scientists interested in raising money through this new avenue by providing educational materials and encouraging peer-to-peer advice on navigating the often unfamiliar territory of crowdsourcing.

First, scientists apply to have their proposed project accepted into the SciFund Challenge. Importantly, each proposal is peer reviewed by a panel of volunteer scientists who ensure that the project is based on legitimate science, that it seeks to answer a legitimate question within that scientific discipline, and that it attempts to raise an amount of funds that is in line with what the project will set out to do. According to SciFund co-founder Jai Ranganathan, PhD, a
center associate at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, this is essential for science crowdsourcing, which he said is very different than crowdsourcing for artistic projects.

“Either you like the band or you don’t,” he said, “and there isn’t any further judgment needed. But for science, the danger always is that you could have somebody fraudulently put up a perfectly nice looking video that fools people. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen” (oral communication, July 3, 2012).

Once a project is deemed legitimate and accepted into the SciFund Challenge, the scientists receive guidance from SciFund blog entries and articles on how to
take a complicated project and simplify it in a way that is interesting and engaging for the general public. They also learn how to communicate with the public through Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social networking. PetriDish.org also provides similar assistance in its blog entries.

Then scientists start putting together project outlines, which include the rewards sponsors will receive for donating, and film
informational videos that will serve as the “face” of the project viewed by potential funders.7 Fellow scientists are welcomed to critique each other’s videos and offer input.

Once ready, they launch their projects on RocketHub, an up-and-coming crowdsourcing website. SciFund continues to provide support for these scientists throughout the month-long crowdsourcing cycle, especially focusing on how to create a public “fan base.” According to Dr. Ranganathan, this is the most important aspect of crowdsourcing success, even more so than the quality of a project’s video or outline.

“The hardest part is getting people to that video,” he said. “The only way it works is to build an audience over time.”

Botanist and assistant professor of biology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Kelly Lyons, PhD, recently finished crowdsourcing a RocketHub project with SciFund’s help, and said both sites played a critical role in her experience. “Many scientists are not great at self-promoting,” she said, “and many of us, while savvy with software, are pretty limited on time to figure out new software, web interfaces, and social media. We’d rather focus our time on research and writing” (e-mail, June 27, 2012).  

Creators of the SciFund Challenge — Dr. Ranganathan and Jarrett Byrnes, PhD, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston — hope the initiative will narrow the gap between society and science by allowing the public (as opposed to a few select funding agencies) to have input on what is worthy of funding, as well as improve the forecast for science funding, which has been looking bleak as ever.

“All of the traditional sources of cash for science — the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, private foundations — are getting harder and harder to access,” wrote Dr. Byrnes in SciFund’s first blog entry, titled “A Call to (Virtual) Arms.” “And the situation is probably only going to get worse. So what is a scientist to do? How can our funding be as secure as RoboCop’s?”6

The last sentence refers to the SciFund founders’ frequent mention of one of those comical crowdsourcing projects: a 2011 Kickstarter project that raised more than $67,000 to build in Detroit a statue of RoboCop8 — the title character in the 1987 science fiction movie that follows a human police officer who is murdered and then reborn as a “powerful cyborg” to fight crime.9

Dr. Lyons, who has sat on US Department of Agriculture granting panels, said she has seen the rates of funding from some national agencies go from about 80% down to 10%. “Ten is really rough,” she said, “particularly for schools where professors have very low teaching loads and are expected to bring in big research dollars to support their research agendas. It might get pretty ugly if the US [government] continues on this path. You’re sure to see tuition rates at state-funded institutions, who rely heavily on these research funds, continue to go up” (email, June 27, 2012).

SciFund has sponsored 2 rounds of projects so far, with 43 projects raising $100,345.10 The most recent round, which finished in May of 2012, had almost half of its projects meet their funding goals.

“For crowdfunding,” said Dr. Ranganathan, “44% is pretty astounding. SciFund challenge is the most important thing I’ve done with my science career. It’s been so rewarding to see that people are paying attention. For a long time, academia hasn’t valued outreach at all. But it’s changing. I can see it changing.”

First Experiences with Crowdsourcing

Several botanical, SciFund-sponsored research projects just completed their crowdsourcing initiatives on RocketHub, including projects studying reforestation of cottonwood trees (Populus spp.), seaweed’s impact on the Galapagos Islands, the circulation of water within saguaro cacti (Carnegiea gigantean), and a parasitic South African plant called Cats Nails (Hyobanche spp.).11 Although SciFund currently lacks a category for medicinal plant projects, Dr. Ranganathan said one could be added once they receive an herbal medicine-related proposal.

Dr. Lyons’s project, “What’s that Weed?!,” sought funds to publish a scientific guide of plants and weeds found throughout urban areas of South Texas. She raised $970, or 57% of the project’s $1,715 goal.12 Dr. Lyons said she thinks her project did not meet its goal for several reasons, including the subject of the research itself.

“I love weeds. I think that learning about urban weeds might help us become more aware of the environment in general. But the onus falls on me to make this appealing,” she explained.  “Others work with bees, birds, whales, etc…  What would you rather read about? We joke about it, but ‘charismatic megafauna’ really are more appealing to the average American. That, and things that can heal us, particularly if it involves healing children or babies!”

Haldre Rogers, PhD, a tropical forest ecologist and conservation biologist at Rice University, launched a crowdsourcing project to study the declining populations of wild boonie chile pepper (
Capsicum frutescens) in Guam. Having raised 50% of the funding goal, Dr. Rogers will receive about $650 for her research (e-mail, July 16, 2012).

“I learned several lessons from this first effort,” said Dr. Rogers. “One is that maintaining an online presence and developing a video takes a lot of time!” Dr. Rogers, who noted that most of her project funders were people she already knew and fellow SciFund scientists, recommended that future crowdsourcing scientists start early and seek significant feedback from peers, tweet and blog often and well ahead of the project’s official start, and market to newspapers, university news services, and relevant organizations.

“Ideally, the [donations] would be from people that I don't know, but I failed to reach and motivate these people to donate,” she said. “I suspect other participants more effectively used traditional and social media outlets to get their projects publicized widely.”

Based on how much time she found it took to crowdsource, Dr. Rogers suggested that this new funding avenue might be easier for younger scientists, most of whom are more accustomed to the demands of Facebook and Twitter.

“I suspect that blogs and tweets will be a great way for some people to communicate science to the public,” said Dr. Rogers, “but that it's not something for every scientist. But maybe I'm behind the times! I think crowdsourcing is a great way for undergrads and grad students to raise small amounts of money to fund research projects that may be in their early stages of development and thus not likely to receive larger grants from traditional sources.”

Based on her experience, Dr. Lyons recommends that other scientists who are interested in crowdsourcing pick a small, well-defined project with widespread appeal, use high-quality photos, develop a simple and interesting project description, and set a small and reasonable donation goal.

“The bottom line,” she said, “is that you have to know what it is about your subject that might be appealing to the average person.”

Unlike other crowdsourcing websites, including PetriDish.org, that allow project creators to have the funds only if they meet 100% of their goal, RocketHub lets them take whatever amount they are able raise. Crowdsourcing websites take ranging portions of funds as payment for the services they provide. RocketHub takes 8% from successfully funded projects and 12% from projects that fall short of their funding goal; PetriDish takes 5% from successfully funded projects, in addition to the 3-4% typically charged by online payment services.4

Although she welcomes the additional outlet for fundraising, Dr. Lyons expressed concern for the potential consequences of crowdsourced science. For example, the tasks involved — such as paying attention to and thanking donors, providing incentives, maintaining project updates, writing blog entries, and updating Facebook — can be very time consuming. And, Dr. Lyons said she fears that if crowdsourcing were to become the primary mode of science funding, “the important-but-less-interesting-to-the-general-public projects will get lost.”

Dr. Ranganathan was initially concerned about the possibility that crowdsourcing would benefit only “cuddly science,” as he called it, but he said it has not turned out that way. One of SciFund’s most successful projects, for example, sought to study E. coli in the gut of mice.

“Are you half a step ahead if you’re working with pandas?” he said. “Of course. But our results show that every scientist can do it regardless of field. The reason [these projects] were successful is because they came up with a very compelling story of what their science was about and promoted in a very successful way.”

More information on the #SciFund Challenge is available at
www.scifundchallenge.org. PetriDish is available at www.PetriDish.org.

—Lindsay Stafford Mader


  1. Kickstarter stats. Kickstarter website. Available at: www.kickstarter.com/help/stats?ref=footer. Accessed June 28, 2012.

  2. Project guidelines. Kickstarter website. Available at: www.kickstarter.com/help/guidelines?ref=footer. Accessed July 1, 2012.

  3. 15 crazy/awesome Kickstarter projects (photos). The Huffington Post. June 7, 2012. Available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/07/15-crazy-awesome-kickstarter-projects-photos_n_1571279.html#slide=1055466. Accessed June 25, 2012.

  4. Frequently Asked Questions. PetriDish website. Available at: www.petridish.org/faq.  Accessed July 13, 2012.

  5. Kipping D. Help us find the first exomoon. PetriDish website. Available at: www.petridish.org/projects/help-us-find-the-first-exomoon. Accessed July 13, 2012.

  6. Byrnes. The #SciFund Challenge: a call to (virtual) arms. SciFund Challenge Blog. July 29, 2011. Available at: http://scifundchallenge.org/blog/2011/07/29/the-scifund-challenge-a-call-to-virtual-arms/. Accessed June 25, 2012.

  7. Slivka K. Young scientists embrace crowdfunding. New York Times: “Green” blog. May 29, 2012. Available at: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/29/young-scientists-embrace-crowdfunding/. Accessed June 28, 2012.

  8. Detroit needs a statue of Robocop! A Sculpture project in Detroit, MI by Imagination Station Detroit. Kickstarter website. Available at: www.kickstarter.com/projects/imaginationstation/detroit-needs-a-statue-of-robocop?ref=live. Accessed July 1, 2012.

  9. RoboCop (1987).  Internet Movie Database (IMDb) website. Available at: www.imdb.com/title/tt0093870/. Accessed June 25, 2012.

  10. Faulkes Z. Round by round: part 2 [blog]. June 20, 2012. #SciFund Challenge website. Available at: http://scifundchallenge.org/blog/category/scifund-analysis/. Accessed July 1, 2012.

  11. SciFund projects. RocketHub website. Available at: www.rockethub.com/projects/scifund. Accessed July 1, 2012.

  12. What’s that Weed?! RocketHub website. Started November 1, 2011. Available at: www.rockethub.com/projects/3840-what-s-that-weed. Accessed June 27, 2012.