Soapbox Science

Crowdfunding: Another Form of Science Outreach

Jeanne Garbarino, a Bronx native, currently serves as the Director of Science Outreach at The Rockefeller University in New York City.  After graduating from SUNY Geneseo with a BSc in biology, Jeanne went on to pursue her PhD in nutritional and metabolic biology from the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University.  During her doctoral studies, Jeanne developed an environmental and genetic model to study the process of lipid-induced cell death using yeast as a model system.  She continued her studies in lipid metabolism as a postdoctoral researcher at The Rockefeller University, where she characterized proteins involved in the cellular transport of cholesterol. In addition to her role as a scientific researcher, Jeanne has been involved in many science communication and outreach initiatives, including co-founding SpotOn NYC (SoNYC), which is a monthly science discussion series held at The Rockefeller University in collaboration with and Ars Technica. She is also the biology editor of Double X Science.  You can connect with Jeanne on TwitterLinkedIn, and Google+.  

At the most basic level, science outreach can be defined as facilitating the understanding of science to non-scientists. While the overall objective of science outreach is clear, the ways in which engagement can occur are numerous. Traditional modes of science outreach include classroom visits by scientists, laboratory tours, public science talks, and science museums. But evolving technologies have opened the door for additional science outreach models.

As Holly Bik and Miriam Goldstein outlined in a recent PLoS article, there are many social media platforms that can provide easy public access to scientific information, and an increasing number of scientists are signing on to such relatively low-cost efforts. Using social media for science outreach was also the topic of a recent SpotOn NYC event. There, case studies on specific projects using social media for science outreach were presented, and many more were discussed on the SpotOn site (see #reachingoutsci for up to date listings). Another project to help scientists take the leap into the refreshing waters of science outreach, the SciFund Challenge, led by Jai Ranganathan, is offering new outreach training classes for scientists. But one area that has been somewhat overlooked when it comes to science outreach is the realm of crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding has been around for a very long time (telethon, anyone?), and many organizations exist, at least in part, because of regular public contributions. However, the development of sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Fundly has allowed for personal fundraising campaigns, and scientists are jumping on that bandwagon.

Ranganathan, who has partnered his SciFund Challenge endeavor with the crowdfunding platform Rockethub, has discussed the potential of science crowdfunding:

Science crowdfunding changes the equation by adding a powerful new incentive for scientists to engage the public with science: the potential for raising money for research directly from the public. What makes crowdfunding such a powerful potential lever to connect science and society is that the amount of money that can be raised in this way is directly proportional to the size of the audience that has been built.

Because the basic tenet of successful crowdfunding is built upon the “strength in numbers” philosophy, broad dissemination of the message is inherent to any crowdfunding campaign. For scientists who crowdfund, this also implies a broad dissemination (and hopefully understanding) of scientific information to communities that include non-scientists. In other words, science crowdfunding is science outreach.

In general, many scientists rely on their own networks – family, friends, colleagues – to contribute to their crowdfunding campaign. If a large number of supporters also promote the project within their own networks, this opens up the campaign to an even broader audience, thereby extending the reach. Some successful scientist-crowdfunders regularly interact with their contributors, keeping them up to date through blog posts, invitations to join virtual lab meetings (through Google+, for instance), or to vote on specific aspects of the project.

This crowdfunding philosophy opens up opportunities for scientists to interact with the public in a way that is vastly different from what is seen using traditional funding models. However, this also brings with it a certain set of challenges, including significant time investments from the project coordinator. Yet, the potential to engage with the funders of a project certainly help increase their understanding of the particular topic, as well as how science is conducted and discussed. This is particularly relevant when it comes to policy decisions, which are often based on voter demands.

Rarely (if ever) will a scientist who turns to crowdfunding reach Veronica Mars status, but there are a growing number of science crowdfunding campaigns that have successfully reached fundraising goals, ranging from the modest to the not-so-modest. And there are a growing number of science-specific crowdfunding platforms, such as Microryza and Petridish, to help meet the demands of scientists who also play the role of scientist-(crowd)fundraiser.

The money raised from science crowdfunding campaigns can serve as a supplement to cover costs of experiments, to help pay for research-related travel, or to pay for graduate students. But science crowdfunding can also include topics that aren’t directly related to research costs. For instance, I am involved in a project, called the NEURODOME, that aims to educate the public about the brain. Specifically, we are using Kickstarter to crowdfund the creation of a planetarium show that flies through neurons, just as a traditional planetarium show flies through space.

While the crowdfunding process for the NEURODOME is inherently a type of science outreach, the project itself is actually geared to engage the public, which substantially increases the impact potential. Our goal is to present the audience with a visual narrative about human exploration using real images of the human brain, collected and stitched together by an interdisciplinary team of scientists, software engineers, and filmmakers. Given the recent and heavy focus on neuroscience research as mandated by President Obama, we hope that our film will compliment the impending breakthroughs in brain research by helping to better educate – and engage – the public about topics pertaining to neuroscience.

The definition and methods of science outreach are evolving, and it is clear that science crowdfunding should be a part of the science outreach conversation. As a scientist who is currently experiencing the ups and downs of the crowdfunding process, I can attest to the fact that it is a lot of work for those who wish to be funded. However, by asking the public to willingly invest their money in a particular project, we become more accountable for how the funds are being spent, and transparency and engagement from scientist-crowdfunders become a requirement. Although we still need to develop metrics to quantify the overall impact of crowdfunding science, I remain optimistic that this process will greatly enhance science outreach efforts, and contribute to building a bridge between science and society.


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