The science crowdfunding landscape
115 science projects have been crowdfunded, but crowdfunding can’t compete with grants — yet.
As the dominant all-comers crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter’s fundraising stats are leading indicators of where charitable online crowdfunding is headed. Just yesterday Kickstarter proclaimed that over 50,000 projects have been successfully funded to the tune of $836 million. They could barely contain their glee:
5 million+ Kickstarter backers! If Kickstarter backers were a country, they'd be the same size as Norway: http://t.co/SvfljBjkac
— Kickstarter (@kickstarter) October 19, 2013
For over a year, I’ve been observing a sliver of the rapidly expanding crowdfunding pie: science projects. By science projects I specifically mean basic research projects that are traditionally (and almost exclusively) funded by the government. The 115 successfully crowdfunded science projects from four different crowdfunding platforms that I will analyze here in broad strokes is admittedly a puny dataset — less than 1% of Kickstarter’s overall fundraising achievement. But it’s a bona fide dataset nonetheless, something that could not be claimed at the start of 2013.
The majority of these 115 science projects fit the academic profile: professionally trained, university-employed, grant-dependent researchers asking focused research questions. But there are also examples of unconventional projects led by self-taught (aka citizen) scientists, student-led, e.g., iGEM teams, and pedagogical research. As I’ll describe in a followup post, the most interesting development in the science crowdfunding space is the emergence of research advocacy, which is catalyzing collaborations that might not have happened otherwise, or that might not have been funded in this hostile budget climate.
Let’s dive into the dataset, starting with a bird’s eye view. Cumulatively, 115 science projects raised $5,082,028 from 47,958 donors, with two megaprojects comprising over half of these totals. Since the average is thrown off by those whoppers, the median is more useful. The median project goal is $3,029, and the median number of project donors is 39. For context, the median science project goal is roughy equal to the average Kickstarter or Indiegogo project goal.
Below is a plot of the total number of donors (x-axis) versus the total amount raised (y-axis) for 115 science projects across four different crowdfunding platforms:
We all know Kickstarter. Indiegogo is in second place behind Kickstarter in terms of volume and reputation, but it actually came online two years before Kickstarter in 2007. RocketHub is a second-tier alternative to Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and one of the first platforms to feature science projects, including Crowd4Discovery. Microryza differs from the other three sites by being both younger and exclusively focused on science. (Full disclosure: from February to September I was an independent contractor for Microryza, running their blog and mentoring first-time project leaders).
The above plot reveals two interesting facts about the distribution of science projects. First, the ratio between dollars and donors is roughly 100-to-1 across three orders of magnitude, from $1,000 goals to $1,000,000 goals. In other words, the average donation for science projects is $100. Technically, the average donation falls within a range of $100-$60 per donor. This range is consistent with non-science projects and is probably a universal fundraising statistic that reflect economic and psychological drivers of charitable giving.
Second, there is a ceiling between $25,000 and $35,000 above which Microryza and RocketHub science projects don’t go, but above which Kickstarter and Indiegogo science projects do boldly go. What’s causing this separation? The answer appears to boil down to incentives, i.e., whether science projects offer products or not. There is also a role for the size and engagement of each crowdfunding platform’s donor community, especially repeat donors. Briefly put: tangible rewards shift the average donation size higher than people might spontaneously donate, and built-in communities on Kickstarter, and to a less extent on Indiegogo, means a larger captive audience.
Bear in mind that Kickstarter as a rule only accepts projects that yield or offer a tangible outcome. This strict editorial policy limits the types of science projects that may appear on Kickstarter. The biggest science project on Kickstarter is called Arkyd, an asteroid-hunting telescope that will be launched into orbit around Earth in 2015. Arkyd raised $1.5M from over 17,000 donors, and incentivized backers by offering them a chance to point the telescope at any celestial object for $200, or a space selfie for $25. Another wildly successful Kickstarter science project called Glowing Plants raised $484,013 from 8,433 donors. Glowing Plants offered prospective backers genetically modified plants that glow in the dark thanks to an inserted firefly gene, technology that was prototyped in academia but never commercialized. For $100, backers receive a grown glowing plant shipped to them in the mail. Curiosity-driven science is being advanced by these projects — one perk at a time.
Science projects on Indiegogo resemble Kickstarter science projects in that they incentivize basic research with tangible outcomes. Two different teams raised over $600,000 for human microbiome sequencing projects. The underlying science of microbiomes is vast and unexplored. So uBiome (a startup) and the American Gut Project (an academic effort) turned to Indiegogo to offer microbiome sequencing kits for $99 to $199 a pop in exchange for donations — the crowdfunded version of 23andMe. The biggest science project in the dataset is called Scanadu, which raised $1.66M from 8,522 donors. At $199 per device, backers will receive their own “medical grade Tricorder,” with which they can self-track their physiology.
Products and engaged platform communities make it much easier for science projects to raise oodles of cash, and the sky is the limit depending on what kind of science the public is captivated by. But that doesn’t explain why Microryza and RocketHub science projects top out around $25,000 to $35,000. As I’ll explain below, this ceiling results from a combination of (1) grant dependence, (2) academic conservatism, and (3) ideological resistance. To explore this question further, let’s first remove the ten Kickstarter and Indiegogo science projects and just focus on Microryza and RocketHub science projects:
Note that Microryza and RocketHub science projects have a nearly identical statistical profile even though Microryza is an all-or-nothing platform that doesn’t require tangible outcomes, while RocketHub is a keep-what-you-raise platform that requires perks. 56 Microryza science projects raised $321,640 from 3,022 donors with an average project size of $5,743. 49 RocketHub science projects raised $196,650 from 2,958 donors with an average project size of $4,013. The majority of RocketHub science projects are the result of a partnership with the SciFund Challenge, a “by academic scientists, for academic scientists” approach led by Jai Ranganathan, Jarrett Byrnes and Zen Faulkes.
Back to the $25k-$35k ceiling. When I say grant dependence — I would even go so far as to call it an addiction — I mean academics are accustomed to funding multi-year research programs instead of specific projects or milestones. It’s bloody expensive to do basic research, especially the part where you have to pay people to carry out and analyze experiments. Laboratory startup costs can range from $50,000 to $100,000.
When I say academic conservatism, I mean academics are notoriously set in their ways, ironically often in spite of empirical evidence. For example, most academics with any sense have been trashing Impact Factor for years, yet the relentless pursuit of glamor publications continues unabated. Despite glaring flaws in the government funding enterprise (highlighted brilliantly by Prof Henry Bourne here, here and here), young assistant professors swallow the status quo without protest, and a generational window of change shuts forever. And most established professors have never had a job outside of academia, so trainees are socialized by mentors who themselves ritualistically reenact traditions passed down to them from their mentors, and so on.
When I say ideological resistance, I mean most academics are staunch defenders of government intervention in basic research, even though the current arrangement is a blip in the history of science. I’ve often heard academics claim that crowdfunding is a terrible idea because we already do it in the form of taxation. What’s more, these same folks crush any discussion of crowdfunding because they fear it will somehow crowd out public funds, or encourage policymakers to reduce government agency budgets. After 16 days of US government shutdown that shuttered research agencies like NIH and NSF, and sequestration before that, what sane person believes that government-sponsored research is under siege from crowdfunding? If anything, crowdfunding can be a refuge from the budget storm.
In my next post on science crowdfunding, I will take a detailed look at some exciting recent projects led by patient advocacy groups.