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Fun(d) with Science

After the money's gone
After the money’s gone

Many researchers will tell you that financing their work–writing grants, securing funding, and budgeting for varying funding levels year to year–is the least rewarding part of life in academia, but there’s no escaping the simple fact that science costs money. For decades, the majority of taxpayer-funded research dollars in the United States and much of the world has been awarded through relatively large grants from foundations or government-backed agencies. Funders seek to maximize their bang-for-buck, betting on what research will pay the biggest dividends, but both scientists and policymakers are constantly looking for new funding opportunities and reconsidering best practices for grants. This blog post highlights two articles published in PLOS ONE that examine how we pay for science.

The first study concerns a relatively new potential source of funding for research: crowdfunding, or soliciting small-dollar-amount contributions from many people via the internet. In an effort to determine how different factors contribute to the success or failure of crowdfunding campaigns to finance research projects, a group of scientists from across the United States coordinated the #SciFund Challenge. In three rounds, 159 scientists were recruited to run their own crowdfunding campaigns for relatively low-cost research projects. Using the RocketHub crowdfunding platform, scientists posted their research ideas, which were mostly conservation biology and ecology, but included other disciplines such as political science and psychology. They then promoted their campaigns via email, social media, and outreach to varying degrees as they saw fit. Between July 2011 and December 2012, these proposals brought in over $250,000 worth of funding.

Based on statistical analysis of each project’s page views, tweets, contributions, and researcher surveys, the authors of the study conclude that the success of a research crowdfunding campaign is not determined solely by pre-existing levels of public interest and awareness. Rather, scientists’ efforts in outreach and public engagement do appear to matter to the success or failure of such campaigns. The authors propose an optimal recipe for a successful campaign as follows:

  1. Develop a communication network to increase interest in the research and establish lines of communication with the public.
  2. Use email, Twitter, and other social media outlets to build upon the established communication network.
  3. Once the campaign is underway, leverage the network and interest into page views and donations.

Author's proposed funding model
Author’s proposed model for a successful crowdfunding campaign

No matter how compelling the research or how savvy the researcher, though, it’s unlikely that crowdfunding will ever replace traditional funding sources. While individual donations to crowdfunding campaigns are generally small in size, awards through grants from larger funders typically come in much larger chunks. How big should those chunks be, and is work backed by more than one funding source?

This was the topic of a 2013 PLOS ONE paper, in which researchers at the University of Ottawa examined how the size of funding grants affects the impact of scientific research. The authors of the study compared the size of grants awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to the academic impact of the resulting work. How to best quantify the impact of research is an open question, contentious, and subjective in its own right, but these authors used four metrics:

  1. The numbers of articles published as a result of the research
  2. The numbers of citations those articles received in peer-reviewed publications
  3. The most-cited article that resulted from the research
  4. The number of highly cited articles that arose from the research

The authors found that impact (as they defined it) tended to increase with funding, but only weakly. Scientists who received grants from both the NSERC and an additional funder, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, did not appear to produce more impactful work than those funded solely by the NSERC. The authors also found that impact and funding may be subject to the law of diminishing returns, e.g., the 100,000th dollar may not increase research impact of as much as the 10,000th dollar does. As we consider the right grant size to maximize bang for buck, this study may add to the literature suggesting that granting agencies may get more impact per dollar by awarding smaller grants to more scientists, rather than only awarding a few large grants to perceived “elite” scientists.

There are some projects and objectives for which large-scale grants are indispensable, and crowd-funding may not be an appropriate or feasible means of financing all research projects. Nonetheless, both scientists and funders may do well to consider fresh alternatives to the large-grant funding opportunities that have held primacy for decades.

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The first image is from AndreasS via flickr. The second is Fig. 8 of the first study.


Byrnes JEK, Ranganathan J, Walker BLE, Faulkes Z (2014) To Crowdfund Research, Scientists Must Build an Audience for Their Work. PLoS ONE 9(12): e110329. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110329

Fortin J-M, Currie DJ (2013) Big Science vs. Little Science: How Scientific Impact Scales with Funding. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65263. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065263

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