Crowdfunding platforms can work very well for pre-sales of popular items. Even in the case of our protocols.io, while not great for funding, it was very useful to give visibility to our effort. However, while projects on Kickstarter need marketing, science projects need funding rather than advertising. Moreover, unlike ZappyLab with thousands of existing users that we asked to back our Kickstarter campaign, most scientists do not have an easy network to appeal to for crowdfunding.
Based on our experience, I was concerned that researchers turning to crowdfunding were setting themselves up for a harsh month of crowdfunding education, with very little chance of successfully raising the research dollars that they so desperately need. I know that biomedical science funding is broken, but I don’t see how crowdfunding is fixing it.
Of course, our crowdfunding was aimed at scientists to support protocols.io (a communication platform), which is very different from the research projects posted on experiment.com (the leading site for research crowdfunding) and aimed at a general audience. Therefore, to check if our experience is consistent with that of the scientists running projects on experiment.com, I took a quick look at all biology projects on the site (84 projects funded at $3K or above; spreadsheet here). The average contribution for all of them was $94, very close to our protocols.io average of $107.
The problem is that most of the 50 projects had very few backers, and that means mostly funded by close friends and relatives, which strongly skews the average towards higher numbers. I plotted the average contribution as a function of the number of backers. Figure 1 below shows that the more backers a project has, the lower the average. For the most popular projects with more than 100 backers, the averages hover around $50 – much closer to the $39 that we saw when excluding the relatives.
|Figure 1. Average contribution as a function of the number of backers of the project. Numbers are from all 84 biology projects successfully funded on experiment.com at $3,000 or above.|
The projects on experiment.com, just as on Kickstarter, are all-or-nothing. That is, if a project does not reach its funding goal, it gets none of the contributions. As I wrote in my previous post, there are good reasons to structure funding campaigns this way, but it also creates an extraordinary pressure on the scientist running the campaign to somehow get it to 100%. I have spoken to a number of people who ran campaigns on experiment.com, and several indicated that they had to use their own credit cards at the end to make the campaign successful. Based on this, I hypothesized that projects raising close to 100% of their total will often be rescued by relatives as was our protocols.io or will be partially self-funded by the scientist. Consistent with this prediction, graphing the average contribution as a function of the percent of the raised funding target shows a strong bias towards inflated averages around 100%-105%.
|Figure 2. Average contribution as a function of the percent of funding target. Numbers are from all 84 biology projects successfully funded on experiment.com at $3,000 or above.|
Note 1. There are also philosophical reasons to question crowdfunding for research. The whole point of NIH grant committees reviewing and scoring the proposals, the point of HHMI funding innovators -- is to support good research and researchers. There are many problems with NIH funding and the selections, but as imperfect as these processes are, they aim to select good science. But crowdfunding cannot judge the merit of the proposal or the proposing scientist. Crowdfunding selects for scientists who are good at convincing the public to support them. Crowdfunding selects for projects that resonate with the public. As such, crowdfunding isn't well suited for supporting high quality research.
Note 2. If you are planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign, take a look at the experience of Jacquelyn Gill, which is remarkably similar to our experience.