Worth more than money

Power Ranger for sale (Photo by Peter Dutton: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joeshlabotnik)

Power Ranger for sale (Photo by Peter Dutton: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joeshlabotnik)

At the moment, there isn’t a lot of glory for an academic in crowdfunding.

If you want to get promoted at a university, you need to secure funding from one of the key funding bodies in your country (the National Science Foundation in the USA, for example, or one of the Research Councils if you are in the UK, Canada, or Australia).

There is this dodgy hierarchy of funding with one or two national funding schemes at the top, followed by other national funding, then by other government funding, then industry/philanthropic funding (depending on your discipline). In that hierarchy, crowdfunding sits somewhere down the bottom, as a type of philanthropic funding.

Crowdfunding is a lot of work, and it isn’t work that most researchers are familiar with. It takes most people into areas where they may not be comfortable. At its heart, crowdfunding is a funding campaign and the two key tools are Facebook and Twitter. Not everybody wants to take their professional identity into Facebook. They might prefer to keep it as a personal realm (despite the fact that work leaks in). While they might be happy to build a professional identity on Twitter, for most academics this is new territory. Unsettling new territory.

The point of a funding campaign is to ask for money. That’s what the ‘funding’ bit means.

While academics are generally good at promoting their research, they aren’t good at asking their friends and family to give them money to fund their research. Often, they don’t understand why anyone would want to fund their work. They like it, and they see the benefit in it, but they’ve spent the better part of their lives explaining to Uncle Ted ‘exactly what is it that you do, again?’.

Given that most crowdfunding campaigns start by mobilising personal networks, that means not just explaining to Uncle Ted what the work is, but asking Uncle Ted to put his hand in his pocket and donate to it, and have him then tell all his friends to do the same. A lot of people feel uncomfortable about that.

I don’t shy away from these topics when encouraging people to try crowdfunding, which may explain why I haven’t had any takers at my university yet. Perhaps I should try to emphasize the positive side of a crowdfunding campaign. There are lots of positives to emphasise.

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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:

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Crowdfunding your research

Dear researcher

Thank you very much for sending through your funding proposal. You mentioned that you are trying to obtain corporate sponsorship for this project. That is excellent, and you should continue.

You might also like to think about using a crowdfunding service. Crowdfunding allows you to raise funds from the public. It isn’t for everybody and it is a lot of work but I think that it might suit your project.

To this end, I’ve done a quick analysis of your project’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) that might help you to decide if you want to try to raise funds this way. I hope that you find it useful. Let me know if you want to go ahead.

Before I begin, I should make it clear that everything that follows is just my opinion. It’s early days for crowdfunding, and I don’t have any working experience with it yet. Read more of this post

Exploring an open future

This article first appeared in Connect volume 6 number 2 pages 14-15. Connect is designed for casual and sessional staff at Australian universities. If that sounds like you, check it out.


A bookshelf seen through a partially open doorway.

The new lightshade, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Two things happened recently that might, in the long run, make life easier for casual, sessional staff and early career academics. The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) was released and the International Council for Open Research and Open Education (ICORE) held its first meeting.

DORA addresses research quality metrics and calls for revision of the use of the Journal Impact Factor. It has strong support from senior academics and research institutes across the world. In Australia (where I write from) The Garvan Institute, the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, the Bionics Institute, the Burnet Institute and the Victor Chang Institute are all signatories.

While many of the original signatories are medical researchers, DORA isn’t just for the medical research fraternity. The way that research quality metrics are used is an issue of concern to all researchers. DORA says that research assessment should look at the underlying research, not the metrics. The first Excellence of Research in Australia (ERA) exercise showed how journal rankings can be used to compare research across Australia. Once the government does that, universities usually extend the measure to departments, centres and individuals. That can have particularly serious consequences for part-time, sessional and new staff.

For a document written by very established researchers, the DORA (and accompanying press releases) mention “early-stage investigators” a lot. Even though the authors have built their careers around Journal Impact Factors, they understand that rigid use of metrics will make it very difficult for emerging researchers to get started.

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Deakin’s crowdfunding success

Sophie counting out Chinese money in to piles of 100 Yuan bills

After the heist, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Over the last two months, I’ve been watching Deakin University’s venture into crowdfunding research. It has been an exciting and very successful initiative.

Deakin University is based in Australia, so they worked with an Australian crowdfunding platform, Pozible, to make this happen. In May-June 2013, Deakin ran eight funding campaigns through Pozible.

Six of the eight exceeded their targets!

Pozible is an ‘all or nothing’ crowdfunding platform, so the projects that didn’t succeed won’t get anything at all. The others will get about 93% of the contributions after transaction fees are deducted.

Here is a breakdown of the numbers. The two projects marked ‘N/A’ did not reach their target, and so raised no funds at all.

Table 1: Deakin University fundraising on Pozible, June 2013.
Project title Raised Supporters $ / person
‘Caching’ in on game play N/A 42 N/A
Healthy gigglers $12,832 45 $285.16
Mighty maggots v flesh nom bugs $9,970 129 $77.29
Discovering Papua New Guinea’s mountain mammals $21,913 298 $73.53
Retake Melbourne $6,417 68 $94.37
How salty is your seafood? N/A 11 N/A
Would you like seaweed with that? $5,435 88 $61.76
Voyages of discovery $5,005 41 $122.07
Total raised $61,572

I love what Deakin has done! When I saw what they were trying to do, my initial reaction was “Why didn’t I think of that?”. I have been trying to convince individuals at my university to try crowdfunding, without any success. By taking an institutional approach, Deakin were able to get more traction.

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Kickstarter vs. the National Science Foundation

A hologram of a lightbulb

Detail from ‘Parade of Holonzki’ by Ingo Maurer and Eckard Knuth.

What is Kickstarter?

Kickstarter (USA), Pozible (Australia), Fondomat (Czech Republic), Sponsume (European Union), Peerbackers (worldwide) and a host of other crowdfunding solutions provide platforms where people can solicit funds for projects. There are specialised crowdfunding platforms for music, education (Funding4Learning), and even for research and invention (Rockethub). Anyone can contribute to the projects, and it often takes more than 1,000 contributors to provide $10 – $50 each before a project is fully funded.

It is a bit unfair to compare the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Kickstarter. One has an established proven model to “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense”. The other provides a new, disruptive model that is yet to demonstrate its resilience. Still, that’s what I’m going to do. I want shine a light on Kickstarter, throwing it’s shadow in stark relief against the edifice of the National Science Foundation.

Kickstarter is seen as a leader in this emerging field, in part because one project, the Pebble watch, has attracted more than $10,000,000 in funding. Ten million dollars… that’s serious money! Especially considering that they were asking for a budget of $100,000 to start with. While Pebble is an outlier, there are at least five other projects that have attracted over a million dollars. In 2011, Kickstarter funded almost 12,000 projects.

At a very basic level, the two models are not that different. Both provide funding for projects based on feedback from external people. Beyond that, everything else differs: the underlying idea; the way that you pitch your idea; the assessment process; the budget and the grant that you finally get.

The idea is different

The idea behind Kickstarter is different to funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation. You can see this clearly in the way that they describe themselves:

With an annual budget of about $6.9 billion (FY 2010), we [the National Science Foundation] are the funding source for approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing. (About the National Science Foundation)

Kickstarter is not trying to fund basic research. It is trying to fund creativity.

Kickstarter is focused on creative projects. We’re a great way for artists, filmmakers, musicians, designers, writers, illustrators, explorers, curators, performers, and others to bring their projects, events, and dreams to life. (Kickstarter Basics)

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