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.