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Rachel Ehrenber, Culture beaker

Science needs a kick to take advantage of the generosity of crowds

10:57am, September 4, 2012
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SN Prime | September 3 & 10, 2012 | Vol. 2, No. 34

Back in the days before electronic ignitions, “kick-starter” referred to an old-fashioned means of igniting an engine with a hearty thrust of your foot. Today the term usually alludes to a thoroughly modern means of igniting financial support for a project.

The Pebble, a wristwatch that can display data from your smartphone, is the poster child for this kind of fund-raising. Hacker and engineer Eric Migicovsky had the idea for the watch and the technological know-how for making it, but finding funding from venture capitalists or other traditional job creators was tough. So he and his team turned to Kickstarter, one of many online crowdfunding platforms where The People back projects they think are worthy of their money. Migicovsky figured that he needed $100,000, and that’s what he asked for. Less than two hours after launching a Kickstarter campaign, the Pebble was fully funded. By the next day, more than $1 million had been pledged. That was back in April. The total now is more than $10 million.

In addition to technological endeavors like the Pebble, Kickstarter showcases creative projects from the arts and dining arena — the sort you might read about in the lifestyle section of your Sunday newspaper. (If you don’t recall what that is, it’s a publication typically printed on large sheets of low-grade paper that has stories about current events and other interesting topics.) For example, the New Brooklyn Theater is asking for $200,000 on Kickstarter to buy and restore the historic Slave Theater in New York City. A gentleman named Robert Fitz raised more than $3,000 to make a zombie pinup calendar. North Mountain Pastures, a farm in Pennsylvania, recently secured nearly twice their $25,000 goal to help build an “aging room” for curing prosciutto and other meats.

Many projects offer “rewards” for funders; in Pebble’s case, giving at least $99 would get you one watch — if the project were fully funded. Kickstarter is all or nothing; some crowdfunding platforms allow partial funding. And in some cases receiving a tangible reward is why people fund such projects, says Liz Gerber, director of the Creative Action Lab at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. While there’s a time delay between backing a project and getting your product, ultimately the backer is a consumer paying for an item that he or she wants.

But new research by Gerber suggests that many people back projects for reasons beyond the goods-for-money model. Gerber and colleagues interviewed several people who backed projects on Kickstarter, RocketHub and Indie­gogo, three of the most successful crowdfunding operations. Some supporters gave money more for philanthropic than consumer reasons — they wanted to help that individual or project. Others gave because they saw the project as part of a bigger cause in line with their personal beliefs, including a belief in crowdfunding: “I really like the idea of people being able to get off the ground without needing to buy into a big giant corporate structure,” said one study participant. Supporters also emphasized being part of a community of like-minded people, Gerber and her colleagues write in a technical report available on her website.

That community aspect should make scientists excellent candidates for crowdfunding. After all, the scientific community is a well-known group with accepted norms, behavior and symbols. But many scientists aren’t very good at communicating with people outside of their community.

“Researchers are really bad at it,” says Gerber, who has been training some scientists to help them take advantage of the crowdfunding pool of money. “They are good at writing NSF grants, but they are bad at crowdfunding. They tend to struggle.”

In the last year, several crowdfunding outfits have cropped up specifically for funding science projects. On Petridish.org, for example, archaeologist Alison Atkin, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sheffield in England, raised money to study remains from ancient mass graves in Egypt. Tulane’s Justin Yeager asked for funds to investigate how development and land-use practices in Panama affect poison dart frogs. On the science-funding site Microryza (its tagline: “grow the next generation of ideas”), two chemical engineers who recently graduated from the University of Washington are asking for help in developing a nontoxic alternative to Teflon.

Scientists often think that their science speaks for itself. And that may be true when it comes to grant proposals or whether a research paper makes it through peer review. But crowdfunding requires translating the merit of the science to a lay audience, so a community that cares about frogs in Panama actually understands that a project is about frogs in Panama. And that dialog can be rewarding in itself.

“At that point, it’s not about the money,” says Gerber. “It’s about having a better interaction with the community.”

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