Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Crowdfunding Citizen Science: Is it Working?

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Funding for citizen science has been preoccupying me recently.  In most cases I think about creating business models that can develop and use funds that support the field.  But that's not the only option.  Scientists are well-versed in requesting grant funds for citizen science support, and over the last few years crowd-funding has also been used.  In fact the 2015 Citizen Science Conference is requesting crowd-funding assistance.  But is it working?

I've done a (very) preliminary analysis and made it publicly available on the web.  Feel free to add or modify if you'd like.  You'll see this not a rigorous analysis...just a basic search of four sites (Rockethub, Experiment, IndieGoGo, and Kickstarter) for the phrase "citizen science."  While this leaves out many potential projects it still reveal a lot for or purposes here.

I thought this would take a significant amount of effort..sadly that was not the case.  For starters,  I only found 18 projects spanning the last few years. Why is this?  Partly I think it's indicative of how citizen science (as a term or identifiable field) is still not completely mainstream. So projects that may be citizen science by our definitions would not use that phrase to describe or market themselves.

Even the total of all these projects came out to a mere $81,000.  Citizen science can be an extremely cost effective way to do research, but $81,000 is not nearly enough to cover its costs. Especially when those projects only raised $62,000 (76%) of that amount. Something is missing.

Looking even more closely at these individually, many are not specifically citizen science projects. Instead they use citizen science as one small part of the research, or it is an educational project that impacts citizen scientists as one of many audiences. Again, this is not enough to make a significant impact.

But maybe we are looking at this in the wrong way. This simple analysis only looked for projects that included the specific "Citizen Science" phrase. Would evaluating projects ourselves for a citizen science connection (without relying on text searches) teach us something?

Yes.  A lot.

Here are just a few of many examples:

The good side of this is how vividly it demonstrates the potential support available for citizen science projects. The public is interested in this research and the products it creates, and they are willing to fund it.  Literally millions have already been spent and much more can come in the future.

Unfortunately, the bad side is it further demonstrates the lack of "pull" the term citizen science has for inspiring the public. In my view potential funders either a) don't feel connected to the term, and 2) care more about individual projects and not the field as a whole. So there is still much hope for project leaders who make their research interesting to the public. But just relying on goodwill sadly won't cut it. There is already a wealth of information on successfully starting a crowd funded project ( such as here and here) so I won't reinvent the wheel. But these should apply to citizen science projects just as well as they do to any other type of project.

This leads me to re-starting the analysis while asking a whole new set of questions. How do we identify other citizen science projects for additional analysis?  Can we categorize these "non-traditional" or "emerging" types of projects into a useful model?  What might that model teach us about ways to make citizen science profitable for citizen scientists themselves?

The answer to all is I don't know. But next week I'll try to answer.

Stay tuned!


  1. Very interesting post. I'm curious if you think there a reason that donor behavior v-a-v citizen science projects would differ substantially from donations to science projects in general. I'd say that, if anything, citizen science projects may be more successful, since they often involve "kits" that can serve as a "reward" incentive for donors. But overall, I think that general stats on science crowdfunding would apply here as well.

  2. I wonder if part of the problem is the term which is being used: 'citizen science.' I have been told that for some people, it carries slightly negative connotations and that perhaps a term like 'community science' might be more effective.

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