Maria Zatko used this mass spectrometer in her crowdfunded research project when she was a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Lauren Easley

Want to crowdfund your science? New study hints at who is successful

Atmospheric scientist Maria Zatko was close to completing her thesis on ground-level ozone in 2014 when she learned of a perfect opportunity to fill a gap in her research on this air pollutant.

Zatko and her adviser at the University of Washington in Seattle realized she could join an ongoing research project in Utah that was studying causes of the area’s unusually high ozone levels during winter. Zatko wanted to measure the release of nitrogen oxides from snow. But collecting the snow samples would require a month of fieldwork, and Zatko had no funding to cover the costs.

So Zatko decided to try an emerging source for research funding—online crowdfunding. Through a campaign on a website, Experiment.com, she raised $12,000. The cash was “critical” to completing her Ph.D., she says. “Even more important is how it has played out postgraduation,” she adds, because presenting the data at a conference led to her current job with an environmental consulting firm. “I’m just eternally grateful” to the 155 people who responded to her funding plea, she says.

Zatko fits the profile of scientists who have had success with Experiment.com campaigns, according a new study. Women have a higher success rate than men, and a majority were led by students, found scholars who wrote the study for The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that supports economics studies relevant to public policy.

In one of the largest studies of its kind, the researchers studied 728 campaigns conducted on Experiment.com, the biggest crowdfunding platform specifically for research. (It was founded in 2012 under a different name.) The site allows scientists to set a funding goal, but the project receives the money only if the goal is met. Experiment.com, a for-profit enterprise, retains 8% of funds raised. The website’s staff provides some review of projects before posting them, and most campaigns last 30 to 60 days.

Almost half of the studied projects met their targets and received funding, the researchers found. But students and postdocs had higher success rates than tenured faculty members, even after controlling for the fact that the junior people tended to ask for less money.

Requests for help typically focused on travel and lab costs as well as equipment and fees for publication and conferences. And the median amount raised was relatively modest, just $3100. That reflected the small amounts requested—most target amounts were less than $15,000. Only three projects requested more than $100,000, one of which was an outlier: a project led by Hollywood producer Gordon Gray sought $1 million to develop treatments for Batten disease, a rare, inherited neurodegenerative disease. It raised $2.6 million.

What makes for a successful campaign? A statistical analysis by the NBER authors found that project leaders who worked actively to solicit contributions had higher success rates and raised larger sums than those who didn’t. That active engagement included posting online endorsements from experienced scientists and others, providing compelling “lab notes” containing updates and project background, and offering donors a nonmonetary reward such as visits to the research lab and, in the case of wildlife studies, offering photographs of subject animals.

Such outreach takes time and effort, which scientists need to weigh against the modest dollar amounts they are likely to raise. “You can’t just put out a project and you wake up the next morning and have $10,000 in the bank,” says one of the authors, Henry Sauermann of the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin.

Zatko can attest to the work involved to spread the word. She knew about half of her donors, she says, and had sent many of them emails asking for help. And preparing an appealing pitch that described her research was eye-opening. “That was one of the first times when I was forced to explain my project in layman’s terms,” she recalls. “For most of the Ph.D., I was really down in the weeds. It was so nice to take a step back and think about how this affects the broader community.”

In Zatko’s case, she says the support did produce a finding that could benefit society at large: She concluded that chemical reactions in snow were making only a minimal contribution to the region’s ozone pollution, compared with emissions coming from natural gas drilling. That could help policymakers better focus their efforts to improve air quality.

Although she encourages others to consider crowdfunding, Zatko says, “I really wish there was more funding for scientists, so people didn’t have to go down this path. For already stressed Ph.D.s, this is one more stressor. Until it’s funded—and then it’s awesome.”

To be sure, the dollar amounts provided by crowdfunding are far smaller than those typically obtained from government or private grants. But “the point is not to replace traditional [funding] mechanisms,” Sauermann says. Rather, crowdfunding can be a complementary source “that can fill gaps or expands access” to funding for researchers—such as early career scientists or those working in meagerly funded fields—who “traditionally wouldn’t have had those grant opportunities.”