Over the years science funding has changed significantly. In the past, funding would have been obtained through private benefaction from wealthy individuals. Today, researchers are usually funded by a mixture of grants from government agencies, non-profit foundations and institutions. However, with the increasing popularity of social media and the internet, methods used to obtain money may be undergoing a shift. New routes linking funding sources with scientists are being increasingly explored. Tighter budgets and struggling economies are driving a need for new ways of funding and social media is proving to be invaluable in raising awareness of projects and linking like-minded people more effectively.
In this special Soapbox Science series, we focus on the new ways in which science groups and individuals are obtaining funding and how projects such as Petridish, Tekla Labs, Kickstarter and the #scifundchallenge may change the future of scientific research.
Jessica Morrison earned her B.S. in geology from Middle Tennessee State University, and she is currently an actinide geochemistry Ph.D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame. She is a frequent contributor to the Scientific American guest blog, an editorial board member for Frontiers in Energy Research, and an accomplished Mario Kart player. She blogs with appreciation for creativity, communication, yoga, and uranium at I Heart the Road. Jessica can be found on Google+ and Twitter as @ihearttheroad.
The traditional image of a scientist is changing. No longer will the boring, white-coated stereotype represent a diverse population—at least not if Kevin Zelnio has his way. The independent scientist and communications strategist knows a lot about being non-traditional and since mid-January he’s used the Twitter hashtag #IamScience to spread the word that those who struggle are not alone; like wildfire, #IamScience jumped from Twitter to blogs to Tumblr.
The next step for Zelnio is a free e-book curating the stories—an endeavor he’ll pay for using Kickstarter, the largest online crowdfunding tool for creative projects.
Kickstarter has been around since 2008 and it works like this: an idea is born, a proposal is written and, with any luck, generous backers contribute to fund the idea. Kickstarter campaigns, however, are all or nothing, which means that a funding goal must be met by the proposed deadline or the project loses all backing. These campaigns are typically in the realm of creative endeavor and the most successful have funded a video game, an iPod dock and a webcomic re-print. These projects all have one thing in common: an engaged community of would-be backers.
The #IamScience Kickstarter campaign ends on Thursday and it has already exceeded its goal of $3500 by more than $2000. The campaign couldn’t have come at a better time to pull in community support. It kicked off in the month following ScienceOnline2012 —an un-conference which generated more than 30,000 tweets using the Twitter hashtag #scio12.
“This is a community effort and I’m just the one harnessing the energy,” says Kevin Zelnio. “While I’m the one taking charge of the project, it wouldn’t be anything without the contributions from everyone else involved.”
While the original goal was a free e-book weaving together #IamScience submissions, Kevin Zelnio is now planning a print-run to get books into the hands of high school students. The intention is to inspire them to become more involved in science and to show that anyone can become a scientist, regardless of background.
“There are people in high school who think that a career in science is out of their reach because they are a certain way—a punk rocker getting off drugs or an average person not doing well in a science course,” says Kevin Zelnio. “If you don’t do well in science at the high school level, there’s very little chance you’re going to stay interested or find a renewed interest later on in life.”
In a similar vein and with like-minded goals to the #IamScience Kickstarter campaign, another creative science project, Citizen Science Quarterly, also saw success in its launch. Jacob Shiach, a bioinformatics-trained advocate of independent science research, dreamed up Citizen Science Quarterly, a magazine dedicated to spreading the idea that anyone can do science. He launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the magazine and the campaign overshot its goal of $2500 by more than $5000—a good thing says Jacob Shiach.
“I grossly underestimated the cost,” says Jacob Shiach. “By having 300 percent, we had just enough money to cover all the prizes and print the magazine.”
Jacob Shiach raises an interesting point about Kickstarter, explaining that one of the ways to attract backers is to offer rewards at specific funding levels. Common rewards include bumper stickers, t-shirts, free products or the backer’s name listed as a sponsor. The rewards can be an expensive part of a Kickstarter campaign if they are not well thought out.
Kevin Zelnio’s top reward for backing #IamScience is a custom written and performed song that he’ll produce himself. Similarly, Jacob Shiach offered an original piece of cover artwork, a year-long subscription to Citizen Science Quarterly, a couple of t-shirts, merit badges and the backer’s name printed on the back cover of the magazine.
“I think a lot of people underestimate the cost of doing Kickstarter,” says Jacob Shiach. “Since it’s all or nothing, you really shouldn’t underestimate your costs.”
The first issue of Citizen Science Quarterly was funded by Kickstarter, but subsequent campaigns for the magazine have been less successful—failing for issues two, three and four. The magazine’s campaign seems to be missing the necessary community component.
“We haven’t really made the magazine as available as we would like. We aren’t doing advertisement and we depend on people to buy the magazine to produce the next issue,” says Jacob Shiach. “To get people excited about the magazine, they have to actually read it. It’s been a catch-22.”
While Jacob Shiach raises concerns about crowdfunding for science endeavors, Kevin Zelnio is hopeful.
“The speed at which crowdfunding works can be astonishing really. Kickstarter is a great model for small-scale science projects, but the problem is finding your audience,” says Kevin Zelnio. “I have the luxury of being a part of the ScienceOnline community. If you can get one or two major donors to bump up your funding it seems to create a pull-effect where the more people donate, more people want to donate.”
You can see some of the #IamScience tweets in the video below:
The success of these endeavors is echoed in Kevin Zelnio’s words:
“Magical things can happen when you enthusiastically open your mouth on the internet.”
To find out more about science funding you can read this special Nature News feature, Finding philanthropy: Like it? Pay for it.