Breaking funding boundaries

This is the second half of a talk (first half here) that I gave recently at the University of Melbourne Researcher@Library event.

Thanks to all involved for inviting me and making me feel so welcome.  It was great fun!

A large tree limb growing through a large fence.

The fence and the tree, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

The academy is a tough place at the moment. It needs some hacking.

In Australia, we are at the lowest level of government funding for research since we started keeping records. It doesn’t look like that situation is going to get better any time soon.

At my university, 60% of academic staff are paid by the hour. People with PhDs are working at multiple universities just to pay the rent, being paid the same way that they would be if they were behind the counter at a 7-Eleven. This isn’t uncommon across Australia, and the trend is towards more casualisation of the workforce, not less. This is a worldwide pattern, not just an Australian one.

Things are even worse if you are a woman. Universities are gendered places, and there are historical biases against women in most research funding schemes.

There is a real human cost to all this, as Sophie C. Lewis reminded us recently when she talked candidly about her year of tears. New researchers, young researchers, female researchers, researchers in non-traditional areas, researchers whose first language isn’t English… We are all at risk within this system.

I can’t fix this system. I don’t know who can.

What I want to talk about today is some of the ways that we can go around the system, some of the ways that we can break through these boundaries – institutional, structural, and invisible. Some of the ways that you, as an individual, can make a difference to your own situation.

Crowdfunding projects

I’m looking at crowdfunding pretty closely at the moment. I think that it has the potential to radically change so aspects of the research funding landscape. Take Cristina Garduño Freeman, for instance. Last year, Cristina raised A$7,230 for her project, CmyView.

From her proposal, we can see that Cristina is an early career researcher at Deakin University, a regional university in Australia. That means that she is one of the newest and, therefore, most vulnerable, people in the research system. A$7,230 isn’t a big grant, but it gives her enough to get started. As she explains in her proposal, it gives her the ability to develop a proof of concept. It is seed funding.

When I sent this to her before publication, she was kind enough to reply:

It was indeed something I did in the first 5 months of my first academic job. My PhD was conferred in Nov 2013 and I was lucky enough to be offered a position at Deakin in December of the same year. Taking up this position meant commuting for the 1st year between Geelong and Sydney, and relocating my kids and partner in January this year. I knew that the first job was critical and winning any funds in the first years is hard but critical to building a track record as an ECR.
This mean that raising funds for research via crowdfunding appealed because I had very little to lose. In fact, I gained a profile – publicly and in my School and Faculty – and it gave me the opportunity to network with other academics in other Faculties in my first weeks in the job. It was nerve-wracking, but I was mentored and learned a great deal about how to make things happen, asking my networks to support me in these early days and being persistent.
Since then, I have used the funds to develop the proof of concept app (it’s almost ready to put on iTunes!) and found ways to enable the experience of CmyView using other apps. I have completed 2 sets of walks, one using Nicole Seisler’s art project – City Souvenirs (I learnt the value of constraints) that informed the development of the proof of concept, and a second walk with architecture students where they were able to share walks using an app called TourBuddy.
A small amount of seed funding has enabled me to expand on my PhD research, and develop my work in new directions.

Cristina is one of a number of researchers who are using crowdfunding to raise research funds. Crowdfunding allows people to fund their research outside of the boundaries set by other funding systems, particularly government funding systems. In Cristina’s example, A$7,230 is too small for most funding bodies to worry about. Others are using crowdfunding to raise funds for different parts of the research cycle, such as outreach, that government funders find difficult to fund.

Crowdfunding researchers

One of the issues that I see with crowdfunding is that most of it is project-based. You run really hard to get your project funded, then, if you want to do another project, you have to start running again.

Patreon and Thinkable work on a different crowdfunding model. They allow you to appeal for regular funds, rather than a one-off donation. People might pledge a small amount every week, every month, or every year.

This allows you to build support over time, rather than project-by-project. This seems to be a better fit with the way that research works. Most researchers are working on their research all the time, and are constructing projects to fit the requirements of the funding schemes.

In addition, the funding is ‘untied’. That is, it is contributing to a program of work over time, rather than to a specific project. This provides researchers with the flexibility to go where the research leads. Rather than specifying what work will be done, the ‘contract’ in this case says that supporters will continue to provide funds, as long as the researchers will continue to do good research.

Think like a kindergarten

If you want to step outside the university bureaucracy and get some fresh ideas, think like a kindergarten. All crowdfunding contributions are technically donations. In Australia, all universities are registered as charities (even though they may not feel like that when you work there). This is true in many other countries, too.

This means that university researchers can undertake the sort of fundraising that not-for-profit organisations and charities can do. In Australia, one of the most visible of these is the Bunnings sausage sizzle. Bunnings have a great system for setting up sausage sizzles in front of their stores on weekends. They can advise you if you are eligible, how to get organised, and plug you into their calendar (there is a waiting list).

A good day can bring in $7,000, although depending on weather and location, you are more likely to raise around $1,500 – $2,000. This is all untied, discretionary funding. You can spend it on any reasonable research expense. No need for a final report, no limits on how you spend it (within the accounting rules of your university). It isn’t a lot of money, but it does provide a high degree of flexibility.

Awesome Foundation

One way to think outside the university approach to funding is to become a funder. Like crowdfunding, the Awesome Foundation allows you to become a funder. The simplicity of the Awesome Foundation’s funding mechanism throws most university systems into stark relief.

  • Ten people get together and put $100 each on the table.
  • Together, they select someone who is seeking funding and send them a cheque for $1,000.

This is a very nice thing to do. It is also an easy way to understand how funding systems work. Internal funding systems generally seek to be simple, but end up being far more complex than this.

Be an assessor

Another way to get outside the university thinking around research funding and understand how the system really works is to become an assessor.

Almost all large government funding schemes use assessors to advise them on the quality of their applications. They are always seeking new assessors, as the number of applications for assessment is rising faster than the number of assessors. Some put out regular calls. Others have a standing call and will accept nominations at any time. Here is the Australian Research Council’s call for assessors.

Many universities manage the process of calling for assessors for national funding schemes. You may not be selected but, if you are, this is the best way to learn what a good (or bad) grant application looks like.

If you aren’t selected, you might want to think about applying directly to an international funding body. Most government funding bodies around the world are keen to get more international assessors. The European Union, for example, asks people to review European grant applications. They may have changed their process since last time I looked but, if you are selected, they will fly you to Europe, work you into the ground, and you’ll get to fund some of the best research in the world.


Finally, if things are too tough where you are now, think about moving. Colleagues of mine just came back from Singapore. They say that new researchers get a million dollars just to get started over there. You can do some serious damage with $1 million. Perhaps some of our Singaporean readers could let us know if this is just a rumour?


About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt. At the moment, he is spending a bunch of time looking at crowdfunding for research. In fact, he has enrolled in a Masters by Research to do just that. He'll let you know how it goes.

19 Responses to Breaking funding boundaries

  1. maggies90 says:

    Thanks for the blog. It really does make you think about the future of academia.


    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      No worries, Maggie.

      I’m glad that you appreciate it. I certainly enjoy writing it (and thinking about the future of academia in general).


  2. Pingback: Breaking funding boundaries | Rhonda Wilson MHN

  3. fabulous! thanks for sharing your thoughts about this topic 🙂


  4. Claire says:

    It’s true, Singapore has some serious funding on offer. I’m not from there, but for example Nanyang Uni’s Assistant Professorship scheme provides $1 million start-up grants, and the government Fellowship scheme up to $3 million SGD over 5 years (follow links through to ‘RITA’ and the current round fact sheet). Worth looking into.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Claire. So the plan is to (a) move to Singapore or (b) work with good people from Singapore. 🙂

      Of course, I imagine that Singapore has its own brand of bureaucracy to deal with.


  5. I always believe that funding from the government is very limited, and the reasons of not funding a research project are sometimes mysterious and frustrating. Looking for some other funding possibilities is definitely useful for new researchers. I’m not sure if there is any opportunities such as crowdfunding in Hong Kong, my hometown, as the variety of the means of fundraising is rather limited here (when flag day is still very popular…). But it would be interesting to explore the possibilities and look for new ways to fund research activities. Big thanks to your new blog post.



    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Hi Wayne. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      Pozible, which is the main crowdfunding platform used by Australian academics, is also very popular with Chinese entrepreneurs. Have a look at all the Chinese crowdfunding projects. There might be some opportunities to work that way.


  6. By the way, the funding in Singapore is real, as they want to attract new researchers who have great research potentials and innovative ideas. I wish I was there!


  7. Pingback: Quick Post: Red and nude about advice given to young researchers | Only The Sangfroid

  8. David Stern says:

    $1 million is also heard of as startup in lab sciences in the US. But definitely not in social sciences.


  9. MJJ says:

    Reblogged this on Going Medieval and commented:
    In all seriousness, if there is a call for Medievalists in Singapore, I am off… This is a very candid, helpful post. Lots of ideas that resonate a little with the UK situation!

    I am clinging to my contract in Campus Services and looking to move into the Innovation and Engagement Services team for a fixed term, which I am able to do as a secondment opportunity. Still looking for funds to create new impact opportunities within my School in which I’m an Honoarary Research Associate, and I have adult teaching lined up for Spring/Summer terms with the Centre of Continuing and Professional Education. At least I don’t have to travel between institutions to make up my many jobs!!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Miriam Goodwin says:

    Going back to Jonathan’s opening pars: being paid by the hour is not itself a problem /if/ people are paid enough. There are plenty of wealthy people paid by the hour on what could be defined as a ‘casual’ basis – but they get good hourly rates and often have a portfolio of businesses paying them. (Think about people in professional services firms, for example.) It’s the amount that casual academics are paid and their weak prospects for enough hours over a year (including confidence in their future workflow) that is the problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Good point, Miriam. Unfortunately hourly rates are fixed at relatively low price points, there is no room for negotiation and there is an expectation that casual staff will do more than they are paid for.

      We will know that hourly rates at universities have risen to a reasonable level when consultancy companies start bidding for the work.


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