Partners in Discovery

by K K Hausman

Contribution to the ongoing SciFund Challenge:

“How is writing this microfunding proposal different than a traditional NSF grant?”

Public microfunding proposals may cover similar areas of research, but differ from traditional grants in several ways:

  • Scale
  • Appeal
  • Community
  • Return

Unlike traditional single-source grants, the microfunding model is instead focused on distributed contributions provided by multiple individual and organizational investors. Each supporter might provide only a fraction of the whole research cost, as little as $5 (a cup of coffee), but these add together into a crowdsourced funding pool. A single cup of coffee provided by thousands of people could fill a swimming pool, and many supports may provide larger sums to the whole – effectively,  bringing a whole pot instead of just a cup.

Projects best suited to microfunding are also limited in overall cost, so that individual supporters do not need to wait for years while the initial funding round is completed, or limited in scope so that the project can be funded in stages or phases rather than seeking to obtain full start-to-end backing up front as with a traditional grant. This may attenuate the process slightly, as each phase gate is reached and the next round of fundraising begins.

Where many traditional grants require only a scholarly treatment of the benefit or expected outcome resulting from the proposed research, microfunding efforts must provide a more publically-engaging appeal. The end product of crowdsourced research should be presented in a way that makes it interesting and understandable to the average public supporter. Esoteric studies must be translated into common terms, and made attractive beyond merely scholarly interest.

Microfunded research will be more easily adapted to efforts producing an identifiable product. The public must be able to see what their investment will produce or provide – either a product or service that is measurable, quantifiable, and recognizable. Microfunding supporters will want to be able to share their participation with their friends, which provides greater opportunities for community engagement – this means the research should be able to be described by laymen in a relatively short time in terms that excite or interest listeners.

Traditional research grants generally require regular reporting of financial expenditures, compliance with funding mandates, and progress to date by the principal investigator at set intervals. Beyond this, the research may occur “out of sight” unless significant oversight is mandated by the grant provider. Microfunded research, however, is supported more by individual interest and should include regular updates, engagement through social media, and other forms of communication with investors throughout the process – they become partners in the research process rather than yearly-budget-review recipients.

Researchers interested in crowdsourced funding must expect that their backers will want to “sit at the table” or at least be kept up to date about emerging developments and identified changes – they will be partners in discovery far more than simply bill payers with occasional reporting requirements. This couples back to community engagement, where the researcher must make sure that their supporters are never talking to a friend about this wonderful project – only to discover their information is out of date and no longer valid. The researcher must be a teacher as well as a scientist, to ensure that their supports understand the value of their investment throughout the study.

Many researchers may feel it is too restrictive to have so many eyes watching them closely, creating fear whenever research provides a negative or inconclusive result. They need only remember Edison’s comment regarding “finding 2,000 ways not to make a light bulb” to provide proper perspective. Another benefit of continued social engagement is that while sharing results both positive and negative, out-of-the-box ideas may come from these partners in the discovery process.

Unlike traditional single-course granting agencies, microfunding supports are individuals who will appreciate their involvement providing a measurable return. This need not be a matter of financial return on investment – it could simply be a signed photograph of the children involved in a study, or a dried and framed flower resulting from hybridization studies.

In microfunding proposals, the “come on” that will interest some supporters will include this return and the proposals should include details of what the supporters should expect during the course of study. If the researchers will have phase gates, investors might be able to expect an insider-only report of progress, and naming opportunities for research sites can provide wonderful opportunities for supporters wishing to back particular forms of study in the name of a deceased relative, child or other party they wish to remember. Personal rewards and recognition fit the personal support and investment of crowdfunding participants.

Microfunding proposals must include public appeal for an understandable and interesting course of study. They must be of sufficient scale and scope to provide a useful outcome, as well as the opportunity for the casual supporter to make a difference. Proposals requiring millions of dollars before any research can begin may not align well with crowdsourced funding, as the individual who can spare of a cup of coffee might not recognize the value their contribution will provide in combination with others. This is especially true if there will be no return for a year or more, as the cup of coffee can be enjoyed right now.

Researchers must be willing to open the doors to their research, at least virtually, and engage with supporters in a much more casual and regular dialog than in traditional grant-based forms of research. They are asking a community for support and should become a part of that community in order to retain interest and “pay back” to the supports even if only in mention of thanks.