Making Science Outreach Easier Using a Purpose-Built Platform

Making Science Outreach Easier Using a Purpose-Built Platform
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In my last post, I made a case for why researchers who are interested in crowdfunding their work should focus on building a personal fan-base that they can tap for funding over the long term.

Some scientists are already doing this very successfully by using existing online publishing and social networking services (e.g., a WordPress-powered blog, an active Twitter profile, LinkedIn groups, Google Plus communities) to build relationships with large numbers of both scientists and non-scientists. This outreach increases their scientific impact, and provides them with a ready-made fan-base which they can direct to crowdfunding campaigns hosted on websites like Indiegogo, research-focused portals, or their university‘s own crowdfunding sites.

52% of scientists have never posted research-related content online

In order for research crowdfunding to live up to its promise of accelerating innovation, this type of strategic online engagement needs to become a mainstream activity in the scientific community. Unfortunately, a recent Nature News survey of scientists suggests that online engagement is likely to be dominated by a minority of early adopters for the foreseeable future. Data from the survey showed that only 13% of scientists use Twitter regularly and only 16% of researchers think that online networks can attract funding. Shockingly (at least to me), the survey also revealed that fully 52% of respondents had NEVER posted research-related content online!

Relentless engagement with scientists about the value of engagement is the only way to fundamentally change this equation. That said, tools that make it easier for researchers to test out the online outreach waters without having to familiarize themselves with the bewildering variety of social networks, online communities, blogging platforms, and crowdfunding portals available would likely go a long way towards getting the early and late majorities on board.  Here’s what I think such tools need to provide.

Key Features of a Public Engagement Platform for Scientists

1) Fully integrated outreach & fundraising tools

Many scientists with low digital literacy might be enticed to engage in public outreach if they could sign up to a single website that allowed you to create a blog (like WordPress), list a bio and post your CV, data, and publications (like ResearchGate), manage social media posts (like Hootsuite), and fundraise (like Experiment.com). This would clearly be technically challenging, but could potentially garner a very large number of users among active scientists and academic researchers.

 2) Educational resources

Once they’d signed up for the website, prospective users might still be at a loss as to how to use the available tools to build a fan-base for their research. This is where a set of training documents and online lessons meant to build users’ science communication, new media, and fundraising skills would be invaluable. They need not belong to the engagement platform itself, but public outreach neophytes would likely appreciate a single, authoritative set of resources to guide their efforts.

3)  Institutional support

Researchers would benefit from the ability to integrate their crowdfunding pages into their university’s fundraising website, since this would help drive casual alumni and community traffic to their profile and boost the reach of their engagement efforts. Universities would have an interest in highlighting their researchers’ work and their fundraising efforts because increased engagement is precisely what university crowdfunding portals are meant to accomplish – that is, to create a “culture of philanthropy” in which fundraising can be outsourced to faculty, staff, and students. In addition, unlike independent portals, which only derive revenue from the money raised through their own platform, universities would benefit from the funding raised by researchers on other platforms.

4) Portability

A key requirement for this to work from the perspective of researchers, however, is the portability of their online profile. For researchers to feel safe investing the time required to build their audience, they need to know that they can take that audience with them as they move across universities from graduate school to a postdoctoral fellowship to a faculty position or a start-up. The early adopters who are already using existing social networking and online publishing tools to build their following have the ability to move their audience with them, but for those researchers who would be more comfortable using a single integrated platform, a custom platform created by their university would simply not do, since it would not be transferable to another university.

Ultimately, all these features are already available through different service providers today, and early adopters are making full use of the existing tools to build long-term audiences that will prove to be valuable resources throughout the course of their careers. More integrated outreach tools like Thinkable, however, could make it easier for the digitally silent majority of scientists to finally bite the outreach bullet and start building an online network.

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