The demographics of science crowdfunders

January 05, 2013

Close to 400 donors supported Crowd4Discovery (C4D), our $25,000 basic research project to map the distribution of amphetamines in the mouse brain. Who are these supporters? Why did they support us? In collaboration with a NPR science reporting team, I emailed a brief survey to our supporters before the holiday season. Below are the results.


As of this writing, 116 out of 385 C4D supporters filled out the survey (but the data below is based on the 113 responses as of two weeks ago). Keep in mind that only 249 of the 385 actually opened the email containing the survey link, so our sample is not entirely representative of all C4D supporters. Let’s start with the age breakdown:



80% of respondents are age 25-44. Science crowdfunding appears to be a young person’s game. I don’t know how the C4D age distribution compares to crowdfunding projects in general. If anyone has any insights, please share them in the comments thread below. So where do these respondents live? Ours is an international coalition, though 2 out of 3 respondents are American:

We had 1 donor each from: Indonesia (an economist friend living in Jakarta); Mauritius (a science blogger I met at SpotOn London); Mexico (a scientist who follows me on Twitter); Singapore (a grad school friend); Sweden (someone I don’t know); and Switzerland (a science publisher I also met at SpotOn London). So what do these respondents do for a living? Here’s a breakdown of their professions:



During the course of our campaign, I was keeping tabs on who’s a scientist, a determination I could only make for people I knew. The informal tally suggested that the fraction of scientists was at least 25%. The working hypothesis was that scientists are doing most of the heavy lifting. The above data are consistent, and demonstrate that the just over half of respondents are scientists, which includes university professors, academic trainees (grad students and postdocs), and researchers in Pharma. Interestingly, the next largest group is comprised of people working in management positions in for-profit and non-profit organizations, typically in the science sphere. After that are the people in technology writ large, which includes IT analysts, computer programmers, and web designers. My favorite profession (n=1) is the self-described “full-time mama, part-time web geek,” a person I don’t know who heard about our campaign on Twitter.


And that leads me to the next question, which is how did our supporters hear about us? For this question respondents could select one or more of the following choices: 1) Twitter; 2) friend/family; 3) Facebook; 4) word of mouth; 5) other social media; 6) in person at an event. Here’s what we found:


In what is in my opinion the most interesting result of the survey, almost half of respondents said they heard about us on Twitter. This jibes with my own social network analyses, which show that 24% of all C4D supporters follow me on Twitter. Interestingly, 14% of responses are other social media. My strong suspicion is that includes Reddit and Hacker News. The least effective marketing strategy was in person at an event, though in fairness the only formal campaign gathering was our launch party.

Finally, we asked why supporters chose to open their wallets. Again, we allowed respondents to pick one or more answers: 1) supporting a friend; 2) supporting research in general; 3) supporting this specific project; 4) supporting new avenues of funding. Here are the results:

I was a bit surprised to find that most respondents said they were supporting research in general and new avenues of funding, rather than our specific project or a friend. My interpretation of these data is that science crowdfunding has a lot of room to grow..

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  • Seth Bordenstein

    Seems like scientists funding scientists is not the model we are shooting for. How to best flip the approach so that the public funds the majority of research?

    • Ethan Perlstein

      Thanks for the comment! I agree that “for scientists, by scientists” isn’t scalable. But please keep in mind that around half of all our donors were strangers. As science crowdfunding matures, more non-scientists will get involved, so I’m not too worried.

      For example, please take a gander at two ongoing >$100,000 microbiome sequencing projects on IndieGoGo. One is a startup (µBiome; and the other is a public consortium (American Gut;, and if I had to guess I’d say the majority of their supporters are non-scientists though I don’t know for sure.

    • Sebastien `Subs´ Murat

      You get them involved.

      Here’s my humble recipe:

      I ran some Xperiments a while back that had it all: Xtremeness, human guinea-pigs, `get to see your own brain´, high tech lab in the dungeons of a hospital, really cutting-edge science, etc. People were super keen, especially because it would benefit them in a BIG, direct, and present manner. BUT, you’ve got to keep the science super simple and do away with absolutely all the tech jargon, even if it means partial truths (but I don’t mean lies). That’s hard to do if you aren’t able to contain yourself. Even for me, having to connect more than a 2-3 neurons together can be trying, which means you’ll probably lose interest. I think it’s all about having people concentrate: you don’t want them to do that because you’ll simply wear them out. After a hard day at work you simply want the stuff to percolate through them and satisfy their senses. Here’s a quick all-purpose recipe you may want to consider that I put together (pic)

      I was also involved in another project but as good as it was for the sponsor, for me it was a terrible experinece. I managed to get funding from a watch manufacturer to the tune of $30K, which sounds great and though we go the lots of press, I would not recommend the experience. The project (`The French Job´) generated this for the sponsor:

      – $950K of earned Facebook media value
      – $83M of total earned media value
      – 7.6M global impressions
      – 1.6M videos views
      – 130K of unique website project views
      – 5M fans reached via Facebook
      – 7K publisher video embeddings
      – Winner European Social Media Award

      BUT I still wouldn’t recommend it, ’cause It was such a poxy, try-hard wank I’ll probably regret it till the day I
      die or get some neurodegenerative and hopefully forget about it all! So, as tempting as it is to bring people in, be very careful who you bring in.

  • Avinash

    Would love to see how much ‘trainees’ contributed in the scientist/professor/trainee group. Cheers!

    • Ethan Perlstein

      Good suggestion!

      I’ll update the post shortly with that data.