Are you being ‘grantist’?

wire basket eggs (Photo from Mazaletel - https://www.flickr.com/photos/meg-z)

wire basket eggs (Photo from Mazaletel – https://www.flickr.com/photos/meg-z)

I sometimes get the feeling that crowdfunding is considered the crass second-cousin of genteel, Category 1 research council grants.

The same way people can be ageist, racist, sexist, and all manner of other -ists, I think many academics are ‘grantist’.

The recently successful Hips 4 Hipsters campaign by Dr Mel Thomson (@Dr_Mel_Thomson) and her team from Deakin University was Mel’s second crowdfunded research project (after the Mighty Maggots last year).

In the aftermath of this year’s successful Pozible campaign, several tweeters lamented that she should be ‘reduced’ to having to ask for research money in this way. A few declared that it was an indictment of Australia’s skinflinted approach to research and innovation that forced this initiative.

While I do believe that current directions in research funding are disheartening, I found the responses interesting. I’m a staunch believer in the crowdfunding model, and an active contributor to various creative and research projects. Overall, our blog is pro-crowdfunding.

The ambivalent congratulations to Mel about the fact that her research was crowdfunded taps into several assumptions, many of them persistent in our current university/research sectors.

These are the three assumptions that I’ve found most commonly expressed about crowdfunding:

1. The first is that crowdfunding is less prestigious and not as worth getting as other ‘real’ grants. This is true for the moment, but will not always be so. In addition, money is money where getting research underway is concerned – putting on an RA or getting testwork done doesn’t depend on the provenance of that funding.

The idea of crowdfunded money being categorised as ‘research income’ can be a challenge from the start, and there are the diverse ways in which that income may come in. Deakin University’s Deb Verhoeven (@bestqualitycrab) has presented regularly about the opportunities and challenges of crowdfunding, and particularly the difficulties presented by an institutional’s (lagging) “digital capacity” (see Deb’s Slideshare on “Crowdfunding university research“).

Basically, there’s a lot of work to be done on the logistics of crowdfunding from the ‘back-end’ institutional administration side, but that’s not because crowdfunded money is inferior. It just means universities need to get with it. I’ll be watching with interest where the University of Western Australia goes with their crowd research initiative.

2. The second assumption or belief is that the process of getting your project crowdfunded (e.g. the social media engagement, gifts, hooks for broader press communication) is undignified for researchers, who should be left alone in their hot-houses to put forth their impressive blooms in peace. I guess you can already see what I think of that line of thinking.

This issue feeds directly into the whole idea of how an academic must present to the world. What is ‘professional’? How should academics behave, or be seen to be working? Does doing publicity for a crowdfunded project diminish an academic’s credibility or gravitas? I’m genuinely interested in people’s thoughts on this. If you read Mel’s blog (highly recommended), you’ll get a first-hand, witty view of what life on the crowdfunding track can be like.

The embedded wariness and dismissal of researchers who take on outreach and engagement in striking ways is galling. Academics who excel in outreach and engagement do more for your field’s broader community profile than any number of top tier journal publications would. As well as doing all the things expected of an academic these days, they make university research visible to society. Instead of being snide, maybe you should say thank you.

3. The third assumption, associated with the earlier ones, is that crowdfunding is a last resort for researchers who couldn’t get money anywhere else.

This is an aspect I had never associated with crowdfunding, but it’s one that Mel herself has mentioned in various forums. She has blogged about feeling “locked out of the system due to [her] ECR status, lack of patrons and a spotty track record” (see full post: And…..RELAAAAAAAAAXXXXXXX! Then reflect). Ironically, gaining recognition of the skills that enabled her second crowdfunding success may lead to precisely the opportunities that she thought were out of her reach.

I had always thought of crowdfunding as an avenue for initiatives that may not have sat well within (or meet the criteria of) traditional funding schemes. Jonathan wrote this post to researchers about crowdfunding, and working out whether their work (and networks) would lead to a strong campaign.

As well as carrying out research projects, researchers have also crowdfunded their way to attend conferences, boost their PhD data (e.g. Luke Mansillo’s campaign to buy a question on the Australian Social Attitudes survey), or to disseminate their project outcomes more broadly. Rather than a last resort, crowdfunding may be an excellent first resort – quick turn-around on ‘application’ and readily appealing to your networks to help you get your work done.

If you’re not au fait with social media, or have poor community/professional networks, crowdfunding can be a big learning curve and investment of time. And still worthwhile.

If, on the other hand, you are confident on social media and have good to excellent networks (and a wellspring of catchy ideas), you have a ready-made way to build and maintain engagement with your supporters from project to project.

If your  priority is getting your research done, crowdfunded dollars are as good any other kind. They may not be Category 1, but successful crowdfunded research ticks a whole lot of other institutional boxes.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

10 Responses to Are you being ‘grantist’?

  1. Excellent points, all worth saying (and repeating). As you mentioned, crowdfunding can easily be rejected as being “unseemly”: to the unfamiliar (and wary) observer, it’s begging the masses for a few pennies.

    But trying to get a Cat 1 grant is more similar than critics would like to think. You package up your best ideas, then send them off to a whole bunch of people, hoping that they deem your research to be worthy of giving you some dosh from the public purse. Put bluntly, it’s dignified, red-taped begging.

    The Cat 1 mechanism is important for funding less-digestible research, but—if we are careful not to over-expose people to the point of apathy—crowdfunding has a good future.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for reading, Francis!

      That’s something I’ve wondered about, the level of overexposure that crowdfunding will inevitably attract. When does it stop being a feisty newcomer to the funding scene + becomes just another one of the ways in which research gets done? Will the momentum only happen for those who get in early? I’m sure someone out there is doing research on exactly this issue – crowdfunding fatigue – and I’d love to see what the discussions might be around research.

  2. Pingback: Are you being ‘grantist’? | Katrina Pritchard's Blog

  3. kitokatmh says:

    Reblogged this on The Element of Nature and commented:
    This is an interesting post about whether researchers should consider alternative sources of funding, rather than relying on the traditional research grants we’re all so used to. Crowdfunding is looked down on by many as a less reputable form of funding projects, but should it really be thought of in this way? Surely, if the science is attracting funding through this, it indicates that it’s interesting, relevant and has value? What do you think?

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  6. rhonwynalyna says:

    I truly enjoyed your presentation of crowd funding. I’m a teacher who is looking into crowd funding for school projects. Schools, whether they are public, private, or university levels are, as a whole, underfunded as far as supplies are concerned. As a result of multiple financial burdens and allotments, crowd funding is leading the way to making ends meet in multiple ways.

  7. Great post Tseen!

    I found that very same ‘grantist’ attitude often applies to industry funding. I funded a lot of my ECR research with industry collaborations and government contracts and there was next to no recognition for winning the funds. Often the only people who commented on my funding were the finance staff and then the head scratching started of how to deal with my ‘unusual’ financial arrangement…

    I know this has changed a bit now with commercialisation units at many universities actively promoting and celebrating researchers who win industry funding. Maybe (hopefully) it will just be a matter of time until crowdfunding becomes more mainstream and accepted.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Yes, I think it’s a funding generation change, from the old-school (and increasingly scarce) research council/govt funds to newer streams of funding. Industry funding does appear to be considered ‘less’ because, unless it’s Linkage, I think old-school academia considers it just a small step above consulting (and, heavens above, let’s not talk about consulting and research…). The attitudes of many academics towards the idea of industry funding is fairly conservative and one-way a lot of the time – what can they do for us (the researchers) rather than how researchers might involve the partner in generating outcomes that feel like they’re benefiting all.

      I really like what Deb Verhoeven said in her interview on crowdfunding with Simon Sellars recently:

      Crowdfunding itself is a game changer but not because it will fully fund projects, which is possible, but won’t be typical of crowdfunded research. It’s a gamechanger because it repositions the relationship between universities and their publics. This is about the emergence and development of collaborative economies and research practices, and not just about switching one source of funding for another.

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