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By the masses: the emergence of crowdfunded research in Australia

Researchers are looking towards alternative sources of funding amidst increasing competition for research grants. shutterstock

This time of year sees many academics furiously submitting grant applications to the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Discovery Projects scheme. While prestigious, they are time-consuming and highly competitive. In the Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences category, only 23.2% of the 714 submissions considered were successful in 2013.

However, alternative funding sources are available. Government-funded research targets specific areas of need directed by the government rather than the researcher. Pockets of funding are also available in the not-for-profit sector, but these also tend to be targeted and identifying opportunities can be challenging given the dispersed nature of the sector.

Corporate funding is another option. However, the recent case of La Trobe University’s A$15 million deal with vitamin company Swisse Wellness shows that this is also not without its complexities, following the resignation of one academic, Ken Harvey, over concerns of conflict of interest.

More recently, some researchers are turning to crowdfunding. Going directly to potential funders via the internet and social media, this approach typically seeks small amounts of money from a large group of individuals. It’s an emerging area with range of experiments across the world, including a dedicated, research-specific crowdfunding platform, Experiment.

Some Australian universities are tentatively exploring this means of raising cash, particularly in the arts and advocacy sectors. Deakin University, for example, has crowdfunded research projects with pledges ranging from $5,000 to just under $22,000.

This means of small-unit donation has been successful in generating funding in other areas. In 2012, former-Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer raised more than US$1 million to produce her new album and tour. It has also been used to raise funds for political campaigns, with all of the major parties adopting small-unit donation campaigns alongside traditional corporate and union fundraising in the last federal election.

Funding through public interest

It is within this political context that Dr Peter Chen from the University of Sydney got the idea to crowdfund a research project of his own as part of a wider study into the politics of animal protection. Dr Chen is seeking to raise A$8000 for the project.

Public interest in issues of animal welfare is highly visible in the vocal response to the issues of live export to Indonesia and the Middle East, as well as the Sea Shepherd group in its anti-whaling efforts.

Smaller unit donations are appealing to researchers like Dr Chen. He points out that:

One of the difficulties that I think many people have is the issue of shoe-leather costs with the ARC [is that] there’s a tendency for the process to be so time-consuming that it’s only worthwhile going after large grants, but many in the humanities would suggest that mid-sized grants would be the best for their projects and interests – larger than university schemes, but considerably smaller than the average ARC.

Engaging the audience

Crowdfunding typically requires an effective communications campaign that draws potential donors into the project through a compelling idea and sometimes offering other incentives. A dual benefit of the process is that it pushes academics more into public engagement in research. What is interesting, in Dr Chen’s experience:

…is how it draws an audience into the development process of research: rather than simply presenting a tidy result.

Crowdfunding may push academics more into public engagement in research. J. Paxon Reyes, CC BY-NC

Dr Chen thinks that the higher education sector could benefit from this approach:

…not simply in terms of liberating new resources, but because it pushes us to appeal to different audiences for our work, and also allows us to build readerships. It’s an exciting and challenging time.

In addition, following the politicisation of research funding during the election campaign, some in the research community are interested in diversifying their funding. The re-establishment of the Climate Commission as a community-supported non-profit shows the potential of crowdfunding to support independent research.

A marketplace for ideas?

Crowdfunding is not without challenges.

Some projects have been the victim of their own success. An illustrator based in Philadelphia sought US$57,750 funding to reprint 5000 hardcover books. However, the resulting order for 110,000 copies (worth $1,254,120) crippled the project, overwhelming the printer’s capacity, suppliers and the artist’s management capacity to service the unexpected demand.

This relates to another risk that Dr Chen is mindful of:

Some of our colleagues would see a move to crowdfunding making research subject to popularity contests, or that it would be the basis by which governments might withdraw support.

Didier Schmitt, a scientific adviser to the European Commission, recently wrote that:

Freedom of initiative is a fundamental driver for scientific excellence and not all areas are prone to short-term science-driven discovery. The difficulty is deciding on scientific priorities.

If crowdfunding takes off, then priorities may in fact be decided by a new marketplace of research driven by the masses. Exciting and challenging indeed.

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