The True Value of Research Crowdfunding for Scientists

The True Value of Research Crowdfunding for Scientists
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Research crowdfunding is rapidly gaining institutional support in the university context, and presents an increasingly mainstream option for university-based researchers to “de-risk” their research programs. By funding speculative or early-stage research, it can help them to collect the pilot data necessary to secure traditional grant funding, and can provide an excellent forum for researchers to engage with the broader public.

But what are the real career benefits of running a crowdfunding campaign, particularly for early-career investigators, given the substantial investment of time and effort that most researchers will have to make in developing the marketing and public engagement skills necessary to succeed?

Given the typical amounts raised at the moment, the maximum most individual researchers can reasonably aspire to raise in a  successful campaign on portals like Experiment.com and Rockethub is in the $25,000-$35,000 range. These are substantial amounts of funding in some fields (primarily in social science and the humanities), but they pale in comparison to project-based grants from agencies like CIHR or the NIH, which average about $600,000 and $400,000, respectively.  It’s not surprising, then, that the participation rate of PIs in crowdfunding has been limited to date, given the significant opportunity costs of the time and effort required to succeed in a campaign.

The real value of crowdfunding for scientists is not its ability to fund a specific research project in the short-term, however. Instead, researchers should think of running a crowdfunding campaign as a long-term investment in audience-building. As the team at #SciFund Challenge have reported, building an audience for one’s work is an absolute requirement for any researcher who hopes to succeed in the crowdfunding arena. The key point is that once a researcher has built a fan-base, the marginal effort required to grow that audience declines over time (since fans tend to share what gets them excited with family and friends), and, provided that it is maintained, the researcher’s growing audience can deliver value not just during a one-shot crowdfunding campaign, but, more importantly, over the course of the researcher’s career.

 

Crowdfunding - Audience Value

 

Fans who learn about a researcher’s work during a crowdfunding campaign and, crucially, who the researcher continues to engage with after the campaign is over (i.e., “stewardship” in fundraising parlance), can become long-term supporters of the research program in question. They might become repeat donors in a follow-up crowdfunding campaign that seeks to fund a second or third component of the broader research project. Some of the fans may be high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) who can afford to fund a research project on their own (this is how iCancer leveraged their $162,000 crowdfunding campaign into the £2 million needed to run their study).

What’s more, if the research program moves ahead (say, by attracting subsequent support from traditional funding agencies) and moves closer to a commercializable product, these same HNWIs could become angel investors and long-standing fans of the research should be more likely than the average retail investor to invest in an equity-based crowdfunding campaign to capitalize the spin-off company. And these are just the direct monetary benefits. A committed fan-base can also help demonstrate the societal value of research to foundations and other potential funders and, indeed, provide useful substantive feedback on the the research program, as well as opportunities for collaboration.

In short, running a crowdfunding campaign can provide the impetus for early-career researchers to put the necessary time and effort necessary to develop their outreach skills and to start building a core audience. The value of this early investment in audience-building is far greater than the actual amount of research funding raised in any individual crowdfunding campaign, and should continue paying off in ever-greater amounts throughout the course of the investigator’s career. Viewed this way, the effort/reward ratio of running a crowdfunding campaign for early-career researchers is much higher than it might appear to be at first glance.

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