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Science by Donation: Ready, Set, Launch!

What does it take to get ordinary people to fund your science? This is the second in a series of posts that will explore the brave new world of scientific crowdfunding from the inside, as I go from launching to, hopefully, funding a scientific project by donation. You can follow the campaign directly on Twitter with the hashtag #AmaznCatfish. Check out the other articles here (post 1post 3 & post 4)


Last time I mentioned that my crowdfunding campaign would Launch April 7th. Instead the project launch was pushed back to this Monday, the 11th of April. In the four days since the launch we’ve raised 38% of our goal with 23 individual backers. It’s been a great start, better than I expected, though not without a few hiccups.


The Power of Charisma


Colorful Hawaiian Reef Fish
One project includes study of Hawaiian reef fish. Photo: Jean CC-BY 2.0

Watching the progress of the other teams in the Fish Challenge Grant has been very instructive about what works and what doesn’t. Only two teams currently make up the vast majority of the money raised in the challenge so far, my own project and a cool project studying Hawaiian reef communities.


These two projects currently combine for 48 of the 57 total backers of the fish grant. Both are in enviable tropical locations on the globe and involve direct contact with fish communities that are very charismatic and threatened. I’m just guessing, but I would say that there is a connection there.


This bias towards the large, cuddly, exciting, or adventurous aspects of conservation is well known. Whether that is a good thing for conservation as a whole is up for debate, but if you’re trying to interest the public in funding your work it helps to have a slick and sexy location and species.

A sawfish in an aquarium, showing it's underside and prominent toothed snout
One project includes charismatic and endangered sawfish. Photo: J. Patrick Fischer CC-By 2.0


The other take-away so far is that videos are very important.Only three projects currently have video’s posted, the two already mentioned and an experiment looking at Miocene dispersal of cutthroat trout using isotopic dating.

Again, it seems to help to have a tight, compelling script and some good footage from the field in these videos.


The degree of exposure you have on social media and other platforms clearly makes a difference, but I’ll discuss that as the series progresses.


Who is The Target Audience?


Scientific crowdfunding involves an ethical dilemma that other crowdfunding platforms don’t encounter. Are we trying to raise money from other scientists, or are we trying to raise money from the public at large?


I feel like this issue hasn’t been addressed anywhere else, but I think it’s critical to the future of this funding platform. If we are reaching out to other scientists for money isn’t that a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul?

All of us are already scrambling for our own funding, scrambling to cover the months that a 9-month faculty appointment doesn’t cover, or just getting by on a TA stipend and clearance priced ramen noodles. If we are asking other scientists to put money towards this I believe we’re misplacing our efforts and adding to an already bleak funding situation.

Instead, I believe that crowdfunding should be targeted toward the wider world and a more general audience. That’s where the money is anyway, in the millions of people out there who might be willing to give a small donation to play a direct role in understanding our world.


My emailing effort has been separate for scientists and for the general public. I explicitly tell scientists that I would like their support in the form of endorsements and sharing the word about this effort with their own networks, I’m not asking for science to fund itself. My emails to my friends and social network is the place I’ve focused on asking directly for donations.


It’s Hard Work Reaching Out, But Worth It!


If you don’t frequently send out mass emails or update your address book, launching a crowdfunding campaign will force you to do so. It also forces you to reach out and ask people for things, which isn’t always easy. The time spent doing it is a blessing in disguise though.


I don’t know about you, but I haven’t spent much time thinking about the connections I’ve made scientifically through my career. I’ve been so busy with the work itself that I don’t stop to think about all of the people that have become a part of my professional and personal network along the way. By the time all was said and done I had an email list of over 100 scientists I would consider peers or mentors and a more general list of almost 200 friends, acquaintances, and family. That doesn’t even count the people I know only through Facebook or Twitter. The division between scientists and friends is important, I’ll discuss that in the next section!


It was worth every second of putting together and organizing these lists. In the process I realized that I have a much larger support network in this field than I thought I did. Also, by reaching out to people you realize that there are a lot more people out there willing to help that you might expect. That is a comforting realization for an academic.


I’ve been amazed at the number of scientists who have written endorsements for the project. We have 13 professional endorsements, far more than any of the other projects in the Fish Challenge Grant.


It’s great to get that positive professional feedback on your scientific ideas…the feedback from your average NSF grant is not nearly as kind.  


It’s also a really good feeling to get support for your work from people you know. Most of the time I feel like my family and friends only get the elevator speech about what I do…this is a chance to reach out and explain your work to everyone you know, and it’s really heartening to see people get excited about your work once they have that glimpse into what you really do for a living.



The Devil is in the Details


Scientific crowdfunding is a new industry, and nowhere is that more clear then when you are trying to get your project going. That said, the team at Experiment has been very responsive and and every problem has amounted to a minor annoyance and not a real problem.


There are a few small issues with the interface that make it a bit harder to use than one would expect. For example, the tool for sending professional endorsements is under Settings which seems like a strange choice. Also, you are encouraged to message each donor personally but this launches a separate window rather than bringing you directly into your messaging inbox, resulting in lots of opening and closing of windows to reply to everyone.


The first real issue was the launch date. Experiment delayed the launch date twice to allow more groups to take part. I woke up that morning to an email announcing the latest delay in the launch date…only to be nudged awake after hitting snooze by an email notification that I had my first backer! Uh-oh, accidental launch!


I was assured that these early donations would re-appear after the site re-launched. It turned out that it took a full day of work by the Experiment team to make these donations whole again, but it worked out.


Endorsements presented another problem. The system requires you to contact potential endorsers from the Experiment site directly with a personalized link. Unfortunately, because the email comes from Experiment a large number of these emails ended up in spam folders. This meant sending a second email from my personal address, copying the personalized link each time. Quite a bit of extra work.


Whether I mixed up the links or there was a site error is still unclear, but one endorser ended up overwriting the endorsement of another. This resulted in one more flurry of emails with the team at Experiment, who eventually got the whole thing sorted with minimal hassle.


None of these issues are serious, I’d say they fall under the heading of mildly annoying and a bit time consuming.  They do highlight just how small and new this industry is. There are still plenty of little things that need to be dealt with directly, so making sure the site you use has a responsive team behind it is important.


The cover image is a representation of social network analysis created by Martin Grandjean (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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