Dr. Joe Cox is a professor at Portsmouth Business School and investigates the motivations behind crowdfunding. We talked about the recent trend towards crowdfunding of science, as well as the advantages and disadvantages and future development of this fairly new funding method.
Background. The rise of internet and social media offers scientists the possibility to engage the general public. Moreover, this trend opens a new way of research funding: crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of individuals (Vachelard et al., 2016). Instead of writing formal research proposal, academics advertise their project on social media, and crowdfunding websites, such as Kickstarter (non-specific crowdfunding), Experiment or Crowd.Science (crowdfunding specifically for science). Often donations are rewarded by symbolic gifts, such as T-shirts or mentioning the donator’s name in the paper. A fun example of raising public awareness can be seen at the end of this article.
Q: Could you tell us a bit about your research on crowdfunding?
I am an economist, in particular I am a micro-economist. I am not interested in unemployment or inflation. I am interested in how individuals interact and behave in different environment with different incentives. So I have been applying that perspective to crowdfunding, by looking at data that comes from crowdfunding platforms, and looking at how crowdfunders behave in different settings. I am particularly interested in image concerns. For example, we have collected some data where we are able to see whether funders reveal their identity or not or whether they claim a rewards for which they would otherwise have been entitled, in doing that we have been able to strongly infer different incentives and motivation that funders might have. Our research shows that is a lot more altruism in crowdfunding than you might expect, and that differs across categories of projects, for example there is less altruism in more commercial, business and technology related projects, compared to more community driven, personal need type cases.
Q: Is there are trend for research funded by crowdfunding?
Yes, I think so. We are seeing this fairly specialist sites emerge, like rockethub. From my experience of looking at those, it seems to be geared towards certain types of research more than others. For example, research in pure sciences seems to be a lot more represented in these platforms compared to, let’s say Sociology or Economics. So I would say yes, with a few caveats that it seems to be relatively concentrated in certain areas of research like Engineering. The amounts of money generated are typically much lower than you would tend to see on grants and other funding sources that academic would write. Because essentially academic time and equipment is very expensive, and the costs mount up very quickly. Of course it offers a very exciting way to engage with the public. Get them involved and interested in your research, and I think it offers a lot of benefits to academic research, which otherwise might be regarded as operating in an ivory tower scenario quite separated and removed from the public. I think crowdfunding is a really valuable tool for getting research out there into public domain, inviting discussion, debate, feedback and just engaging people in what academics are doing.
Q: Obviously crowdfunding can help to gather money for one’s research project. What other benefits beside money does crowdfunding offer researcher?
I think from what I have seen, there is a certain degree to which the type of research being done might not be considered mainstream, might be sort of alternative, more radical or experimental that perhaps mainstream funding bodies aren’t so keen to fund. There is a temptation to fund research which is safe and is very likely to deliver the kind of outcomes the funding councils want to see. With crowdfunding there is a very exciting chance to get research a bit more experimental and different, which captures the public imagination in a way you wouldn’t necessarily get with academic review panels. So I think it has the potential to lead to a lot more variety in research, a kind of experimental, cutting-edge, exciting stuff that funding council may not be so keen to fund.
Q: Do you think crowdfunding changes the way we do science?
Yes and no. I think good science is good science and I don’t necessarily think that funding it through crowdfunding changes drastically the way in which science is carried out. I do think it encourages researcher to think about what the societal implications of their research are and who it is going to benefit outside of academia. You have got to make those cases to the public, if you want to engage those people to contribute towards funding your research. So, I think there is a drive towards impact-driven research in the modern area, and crowdfunding takes it to the next level, because I don’t think crowdfunding is necessarily suited to funding research that only has academic application. I think there is a great encouragement to think about the wider benefits of research, which is probably a good thing.
Q: Would you say it enhances the public engagement with science?
I think so, because if you are going to appeal to the public to contribute towards your research project you have got to frame it in a way that it going to be accessible to the people. And that is something what academic research isn’t very good at, to communicate in a straightforward way, there is a lot of jargon, complex and specialist terms. I think more widespread use of crowdfunding to fund research encourages academics to think about their message a lot more. To engage with the public, to think about how the research could benefit them, about the story they can tell with their research. I think these are all good things for academia generally.
Q: Do you think crowdfunding is more or less biased than regular funding?
I think it runs probably both ways. On the one hand, I think crowdfunders may not come to the table with as many preconceived ideas about what good and appropriate research looks like, so there is more of an open-mind.
But on the other hand, if we assume that there is a significant proportion of crowd funders that are not necessarily subject specialists, I think that one concern might be that it is difficult to tell good research from bad, if you not a specialist in that area. To give you an example, I was looking at a crowdfunding website for academic research and I saw a project which was based on the premise “Can we teach monkeys to peel onions in space?”, and it was doing very well, what a great title for research. I am sure there was a very serious scientific principle behind it, but it had an obvious appeal, it was very wacky and different.
I would generally be quite confident in the wisdom of crowds in term of making good decisions about what to fund. But there is, I guess, a slight concern that without specialist knowledge of what good research in a particular field looks like, there might be a temptation in the public to fund projects that sound quite fun and interesting, rather than those who deliver the greater benefit.
That is why I think crowdfunding would probably work best as a hybrid approach, rather than research being funded exclusively by the crowd or research councils, there is a partnership where some of the funding is provided by the traditional sources and it is supplemented by crowdfunding. Or crowdfunding is used to demonstrate funding councils that there is an interest in the public for that research. So I can see a really nice two-stage models, in which academics first have to go to crowdfunding to demonstrate that they can communicate their message, reach a broad audience, that they have got that appeal and support and conditional upon doing that successfully, they can then access larger amounts of money that research councils award. I see potential partnership models, where you bring crowdfunding together with more traditional mainstream forms of research funding.
Q: Some researcher would say that they don’t have enough time to manage a crowdfunding project. Do you think it is substantially more effort than applying for grants?
If you have been involved in putting together a major bit for funding… that is a huge undertaking as well, obviously successful crowdfunding campaigns are going to demand a lot of your time, but I think if you want to access research funding of any kind, you need to commit that level of time, if you are going to be realistic about achieving it. I think one reason why it turns some academics off is because it’s demanding a different skill set. Writing bits and grants is something that a lot of academics are comfortable with, and experienced with. Crowdfunding is somewhat new and different and demands a different skill set to do well in. But these are skills, I think, academic research increasingly needs to develop: public engagement, research impact and relevance to the world outside of academia. These are things that would help with a successful crowdfunding campaign, but these are also issues you are going to have to get right if you want to access traditional public funding sources. So I think these skills that you need to do well in crowdfunding are probably the same skills you need to do well in accessing any kind of research funding. It is dealing with that transition which is the issue.
Q: You think in the future public engagement could be part of one’s academic training?
I can really see that, sort of graduate training in how to reach public audience, and potentially even crowdfunding. That is definitely part of the agenda, it has been part of the agenda in funding research for a while, and will become more important going forwards. I can certainly see a future for that. I think researcher are going to have to think more entrepreneurial about how they are marketing their research, how they access research funding, and I think doctoral research training probably needs to increasingly take that into account. Because if they are preparing for an academic career there is going to be an expectation on them to generate funding to support their research. These are skills students need to have when they enter academia.
Q: I would assume that it is also beneficial for the public, so they know on what their tax money is spend on.
It adds that extra layer to transparency, which we are not necessarily used to in academia. Perhaps more in teaching than in research. I think it is a history in academia which doesn’t get much further. Obviously the environment is changing, as it has been for some time. Universities are quite slow to adapt to something quite radical, such as crowdfunding, which encapsulates a lot of where I think academic research needs to go, and is going. It’s an adjustment process, it’s unfamiliar, it’s different and it demands different skills to succeed. So people who are used to getting funding in this one way may increasingly have to find skills sets that are not necessarily suited to new environments in academic funding.
Thank you very much!
Here is the promised example of raising public awareness..