Ryan Watkins 
Ryan Watkins
George Washington University 
Source: 5xinc/Thinkstock
Source: 5xinc/Thinkstock

As belts tighten on federal and foundation funding for research in the US and elsewhere, scientists are increasingly looking to Internet-based crowdfunding to financially support their research. In a webinar hosted by AAAS in February 2013, Dr. Ethan Perlstein described how he was able to raise $25,000 for his research on lysosomal storage diseases. Obviously not all crowdfunding campaigns are this successful, nor do many have to be. Crowdfunding can help support doctoral students just as it can support the research of their professors. Likewise, from sociologist to psychologist and chemist to marine biologist, many different types of research can lead to successful crowdfunding opportunities.

Crowdfunding research can act as a tool for building bridges between researchers and society. It offers new opportunities for the general public to engage with scientists. Crowdfunding is obviously not for every researcher or research study. Some topics naturally make it easier to raise funds from the general public than others. Research on issues such as climate change, for example, can often capture the attention of the public more easily than, let’s say, a study on the food consumption of milky snails. Nevertheless, if presented the right way, many (if not most) research can find ways to capture the attention, and potentially the generosity, of targeted audiences, if not the general public.

If you are considering crowdfunding as an option to financially support your research, there are two primary sites that can help. These sites have different goals and support crowdfunding in different ways, so you may want to consider your options before diving into the world of crowdfunded research.

Thinkable.org is a subscription-crowdfunding model focusing on the researcher rather than any specific research study. Founded by Ben McNeil, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales, the site is based on the “patron” approach to science. Thinkable.org therefore uses a monthly contribution model where sponsors pledge usually small monthly donations of $5 or more. In return, funded researchers engage with their sponsors by posting videos and blogs about their research, allowing sponsorsto learn about the latest knowledge in the field. Videos can update sponsors on the progress of a study, or they can be mini-learning modules that offer technical background on the topic.

With the patron model, no specific funding goal or funding period is required to begin building a Thinkable.org research profile, and the relationship with funders is expected to last over several years as the research program matures. Thinkable.org does charge a 10% fee on donations to support the platform.

A second crowdfunding option is Experiment.com. The site was created after the founders, all researchers themselves, saw too many great research projects never happen due to limited funding options. They founded Experiment.com to facilitate the funding of specific research studies. For example, you can currently donate to a project that will take digital images of the coral reefs off the coast of Easter Island or a study of how cockroaches can help us cure tularemia.

With Experiment.com you must raise the full amount of funding that you set as the goal, otherwise no pledges are collected or paid out. The rationale for this is that a specific research study should have a defined budget, without which the research is not able to achieve its goals. Therefore, if you can’t raise that amount then the research should not go forward in its current form. The only fee is the 8% Experiment platform fee if your project is successful in meeting its fundraising goal.

Petridish.org is a third popular crowdfunding site for research. Like Experiment.com, Petridish.org is a for-profit business that uses an “all or nothing” approach to funding. Where it differs is that Petridish.org encourages research to offer “rewards” to funders (such as souvenirs from the field, t-shirts, naming rights, or even field visits). Petridish is not, however,accepting new research submissions at this time.

Other options such as Kickstarter or IndieGoGo also provide platforms for crowdfunding a variety of activities -- from starting new companies to studio time for rock bands. Though these sites are not limited to crowdfunding scientific research, they do have large, well-established audiences. You should therefore consider which crowdfunding site is most likely to find audiences that will be highly interested in your research. For example, if your research topic is naturally of interest to the general public, then a Kickstarter campaign might help you reach that audience, whereas if your research is primarilyof interest to a smaller (yet possibly more likely to donate) community then Thinkable.org or Experiment.com might be the better choice.

Up to this point, there is little information on how universities and other institutions manage crowdfunded resources. If you are going to crowdfund your research, it is best to meet with your institution’s staff to discuss the funding and its implications. From overhead rates to how funds can actually be deposited into your research accounts could take some time to negotiate so planning early is important.