The world's your piggy bank

But it?s still not easy to crowdfund research

By Bart Braun

With websites like Kickstarter and Rockethub serving as digital collection boxes or share issue, more and more projects are being subsidised by “crowdfunding”; never-theless, it’s still hard to find the cash for scientific research.

Detroit will have its statue of Robocop: Paul Verhoeven’s film about a cyborg-policeman is located in that city, so one of its residents asked the mayor to erect a statue to it. After all, Philadelphia has a statue of Rocky. As Detroit is one of the poorest cities in America and struggles with high rates of unemployment and crime, the mayor had other things on his mind and the request was met with a tweeted response: “There are not any plans to erect a statue to Robocop. Thank you for your suggestion.”
The reply hit the Internet and was received with a mixture of ironic and real disappointment. Detroit could really do with a statue like that! Everyone who was enthusiastic about the project could donate money via the website Kickstarter and within two weeks 65,000 dollars had been donated – more than was actually needed.
If you click around on crowdfunding-websites like Kickstarter, you will find similar success stories. The idea is simple: you see something you think is worthy of your cash so you hand it over and help achieve the goal. Bands can arrange money for renting a studio with the help of their fans, manufacturers of board games and computer games can fund the production costs thanks to gamers, etc.
At best, crowdfunding gives creative minds and entrepreneurs the chance to operate along roads less travelled without having to turn to the usual moneylenders and to produce something amazing that would otherwise never have been created.
Could this be a way to fund scientific research? There are scientists who hope so. Rockethub, another crowdfunding site, has a special division for scientific projects; it features 75 research proposals, each with a promotional film and a brief explanation, many of which propose studies into rare species of animals, but there are some on neuropsychology and astronomy.
You can’t help but notice how little the scientists are asking: five thousand dollars for a prototype of a device that can produce energy from waves, a thousand dollars for a recorder to recorder frog sounds or 2,250 dollars for visits to major astronomy congresses. Not many people receive funding from the Netherlands’ largest grant provider, the NWO, but when they do, it’s a six-figure number.
“You won’t get such large figures with crowdfunding”, explains Martine Oudenhoven. This biologist is the first Leiden scientist to attempt to subsidise her research with this new medium. She wants to set up a large-scale communications project listing Leiden’s science research by order of size. Ranging between the largest, clusters of galaxies watched by the astronomers and smallest, particles calculated by physicists, it includes everything in between. She wants to use the list to study how science communication works best and hopes to obtain her doctoral degree with her work.
“I want to work with crowdfunding because my ideas don’t fit any of the existing subsidy schemes”, Oudenhoven continues. “But it is very exciting to see if it will work at all.”
Her idea is to chop the research into small pieces and then to have these pieces – or some of them – crowdfunded. Crowdsourcing, whereby some of the work is done by volunteers, is also welcome. “An important resource for my project is the website: it would help me a lot if people want help me build it instead of donating funds.”
Crowdfunding-consultant Gijsbert Koren is in favour of discretion: the projects that collect large sums like the Robocop statue project receive plenty of media attention, which distorts the picture. The average project on Kickstarter collects six thousand dollars, and that’s including the few that make millions.
You need to network to succeed. “The word crowdfunding implies a large faceless crowd that is searching for ways to spend its money, but of course it’s not like that. I would rather call it community funding. Build up a network of people who think your research is significant.”
Even if it works, scientists are still lagging behind musicians and games designers who have a great trade: you pledge your cash and if enough people pay, we’ll send a CD or a box of counters your way.
That doesn’t work for scientists, because if you already know exactly what your study will produce, it isn’t science. How about a copy of your dissertation? Hmmm. You could offer a guided tour of your lab, a field trip, a visit to the dig or souvenirs stamped with your research object. “It’s a bit more of a challenge”, remarks Koren.
While zoologists fight for a few thousand dollars on Rockethub, medical researchers have been able to attract funds from private sources for decades. Some of the cash you drop into the collection boxes of the Dutch Cancer Society, the Dutch Heart Foundation and other such clubs finds its way to scientists.
Professor Bart Roep, professor of diabetology at Leiden University Medical Centre is one of these scientists and receives funds from both the Dutch Diabetes Fund and the American Juvenile Diabetes Fund, which amount to a tidy sum. “My group is composed of eighteen people, but I’m the only one on the LUMC’s payroll. The rest are paid by primarily by foundations or well-heeled Americans. It takes me more effort to find the right staff than to find the money.”
The money is not simply handed over to him: “The Dutch Diabetes Fund is more concerned with the idea rather than the person, but they have a say in its spending: they might want to concentrate on Type 1-diabetes. It’s also influenced by what the patients want and they often want very different projects than scientists. A patient will choose sharper needles rather than our project on embryonic stem cells. If we ever get the results we want from that, it might mean that we can cure diabetes, but it could take some time.”
“I frequently have to assess proposals for the JDF and once somebody wanted to know whether there was insulin in cow’s milk.

I wholeheartedly rejected that research project but they still carried out the study. Of course there isn’t any insulin in milk, but now they have an answer to their question.”
Like the full crowdfunders, Roep has to do something in return for the private money. He has held a diabetes surgery on Twitter, and was once the guest general editor of the Diabetes Foundation´s patients’ magazine. He continues: “I´ve been invited to attend a gala occasion at the Beverly Hilton, and Halle Berry and Paris Hilton will be among the guests. Last time, they raffled a Mercedes with wing doors for the guests, and at a certain point,  Kelsey Grammer (Frasier, ed.) put his hand up to donate a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. In that respect, we still have much to learn about fund-raising here in the Netherlands.”
Roep is very enthusiastic about crowdfunding for science: “There are very many gifted researchers who can´t get started because no money comes their way. And like the bands on Kickstarter and Sellaband ensure that more diverse music is produced, this is good for thinking out of the box. There is a great deal of money waiting for these projects.” How much money? “ Say I fell out with those finds, I think I could easily get four to five million under my own steam.”
He adds: “I know a lot of people who would like to give the money directly to me – they pass round the hat at funerals. But it´s difficult for me to accept it and I have to tell them to give it to the Diabetes Fund who can judge whether the research money is properly allocated. It might be difficult for people looking for crowdfunding to show how it will be spent, so put your ideas on the website and explain what you want to do. Lack of transparency has already had fatal results for very many funds.”
His most important tip is to listen to the public. “ The projects that do well are often the projects that produce tangible things. The sexiest subject doesn´t have to be low-hanging fruit. And the real money is in trade and industry, obviously.”
On the other hand, you have to make sure the public are aware of you, says Roep.  “I hold talks in halls every month, and answer people´s questions. I show the media around the lab, and give my assistance if a press release is needed. Sometimes you have to be borne on a tsunami of media attention, which is very difficult. You have to stay optimistic without raising expectations too high, but that happens however hard you try to avoid it.”

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