Crowdfunding: Can it revitalize university research programmes?

 By Tadhg Walker

Crowdfunding continues to shake up the traditional way many projects are funded. Universities and academics, conventionally in the firm domain of state funding, are turning to crowdfunding websites to raise money for their research activities. There are successes emerging with this new source of funding, with many research projects securing the money they need to undertake their work.

The need to turn to crowdfunding has arisen out of tighter government budgets that turn the majority of applications down. For example in Australia only 14.9% of medical government grants were successful last year, continuing the downward trend. Government grants also tend to support more established researchers. Dr Ben McNeil, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and founder of Thinkable believes this to be a problem. Younger researchers have a passion for discovery, which may lead to breakthroughs or equally involve failure. However, Dr McNeil notes “failure – paradoxically – is the basis of success. If researchers are not testing new ideas and failing, then they’re not innovating; they’re just making incremental advances in knowledge.”

So where do young, and sometimes old, researchers turn to? There are a number of crowdfunding sites that specialize in funding science and university research. Thinkable is only one, borne out of Dr McNeil’s frustration with the lack of government funding for innovative projects. Sites like Petridish and Experiment specifically target science related projects, with traditional general crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Pozible also jumping on the bandwagon.

lab researchCrowdfunding research is gaining in popularity, and delivering new funding. Deakin University teamed up with Pozible to create Research My World in 2013. Its initial pilot project saw six out of eight projects successfully funded, with over $50,000 raised. Following this success the programme has continued, almost tripling the amount raised and funding a further eight research projects.

Further success is evident across all the above platforms with funded research projects ranging from using gene therapy to treat cancer to the science behind the hormones that make us feel in love and decoding Hyena calls in the Maasai Mara. Clearly crowdfunding is opening many new doors for researchers as a new avenue of funding. A new form of funding maybe, but a replacement of government funding it is not.

Dr Joe Cox, an economics lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, echoes this sentiment. He does not “think there is a scenario where crowdfunding will replace existing funding.” Dr Cox also warns of drier topics that lack the public appeal losing out on crowdfunding websites, compared to ones such as the Flying Car, although being perhaps more valuable to society.

Most successful research campaigns are trying to raise $10,000 or less. The larger the amount the required the less successful the campaign will likely be. This is in part due to most projects requesting only donations to proceed, rather than giving rewards, so donors do not receive any material benefit apart from their own feel good factor.

Major research campaigns often require tens of thousands of dollars to succeed, which usually involves government funding or wealthy benefactors. Crowdfunding may help fill the niche to get these campaigns off the ground, much like it helps start-up companies to create their product.

Crowdfunding allows the public to choose what is in their interest, ensuring successful research reflects public sentiment. However, this poses the danger of important projects that lack public appeal to be underfunded as some projects may be misunderstood, or fail to inspire the average donator. Lack of public appeal should not be the only determinant of success. Therefore government funding is still needed to ensure continued success of a wide range of research that fuels economic growth, cultural understanding and social progress.

There are options where the two funding streams could work together. Governments could work collaboratively with researchers to help promote their work to the public, developing knowledge and understanding. In turn this would induce greater public interest and desire to be involved in research. Crowdfunding would become the logical place for those interested to become engaged in research projects that intrigued them, without the only populist ideas like a Flying Car being supported.

The government could aid this through incentivising research to be crowdfunded. Tax deductions could be offered for those making donations. Another measure could be for government funding to match what is raised crowdfunding, as the research has attracted public support.

uni shotFurther crowdfunding university research provides many additional benefits beyond money. The public becomes engaged in the research that is being completed, helping break down the perceived wall between the ivory tower and the rest of the community. By piquing the public’s interests it gives projects more exposure, and increases community interest and involvement. Professor Deb Verhoeven, chairperson of communication and media at Deakin University counts exposure and engagement as some of the biggest advantages from crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding university research is growing rapidly, giving researchers a much needed alternative to government grants. While spawning new, innovative ideas it does have its limits. The amount crowdfunding has raised so far remains a distant secondary source of income to government funding, though it provides useful additional funds for some niches. Working alongside government funding, crowdfunding has the potential to help increase the resources in a numerous research fields, which will support innovation for the betterment of all.

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