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2012 March 20

Petridish, another science crowd-funder

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:08
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Thanks to a post on the New Zealand blog misc.ience (Petridish – the new kid on the science crowdfunding block), I’ve found out about another crowd-funding service, in addition to SciFund, that I blogged about before. Petridish was created specifically for science funding, and I’m not yet sure what its advantages and disadvantages are compared to SciFund.

As with any funding source, the important questions include

  • How much money can be raised?
  • What is the probability of getting the funding?
  • How much effort is involved in trying to get that funding?
  • What strings are attached to the funding?

SciFund charges 4% and 4% for credit-card processing—I believe that they are also a for-profit company, since they don’t mention tax deduction anywhere.

Petridish is a for-profit company, and they take 5% of all donations (the research projects are also responsible for credit-card fees, which I believe run another 3–5% depending on the card used, and can be much higher for tiny transactions, due to fixed minimum fees). Petridish is looking into ways to make (part of) donations tax-deductible, but they are unlikely to be successful at that.

SciFund is a keep-it-all funder—the person requesting the funding gets everything that is raised (minus fees), whether or not they reach their funding goal.  This allows setting a higher goal, though there are some incentives in place for keeping the goals realistic. Many projects reach their funding deadline without coming close to their initial funding goals and some go well over—funding amounts seem to be in the range $10–$10000 ($300–$3000 if you remove a few outliers), almost independent of what the funder requested, with a median of about $1000.

PetriDish is a all-or-nothing funder: “Projects will only be funded if they reach their goal before the deadline set by the researcher.”  That means that researchers have to guess how successful the crowd-funding will be when setting their goals, despite having no access to information about how many people visit the site, nor what the success rate is for other projects. (That information may become available, once PetriDish has some history to share.)

Researchers who guess wrong are unlikely to get a second chance: “We hand select the most interesting and meaningful projects we find to be featured on our site and then allow you to get involved.”  So not only do researchers have to guess at the tastes of the general public, but they also have to guess at the tastes of an unknown review panel.  The panel may be easier to please than a typical funding agency panel, though, as PetriDish is not risking any money by accepting a proposal—just a little bit of credibility if the project is bad.

I think that the keep-it-all funding of SciFund makes more sense for science funding.   Crowd-funding will rarely pay for a complete project—it will almost always be a small add-on that will enable doing a little more, not making or breaking a project.  Forcing the scientists to gamble on how much to ask for seems silly in that context.

What strings are attached?  Projects must offer rewards to the individuals funding the project, just like SciFund:

Every reward is unique to its project. Some rewards offered on Petridish include:

  • Souvenirs from the field, like a rock from the highest peak in Madagascar or a vial of water from 400 feet below the surface.
  • Talks or dinners with famous researchers
  • Limited edition photographs or artistic renditions of the subject matter
  • Acknowledgements in journals
  • Naming rights for new discoveries, like new species
  • In person participation in a field project

In my earlier post about SciFund, I discussed the possibility of using it to get some funding for banana slug genomics—a project that has some potential for being achievable with only about $5000 or $10000 in funds (as long as no one is paid from the funds—even one quarter of grad student funding costs too much).  The expensive part of scientific research is nearly always the personnel, and I don’t see any way that crowd-funding will make the slightest dent in that cost.

I see SciFund and Petridish as more an opportunity for outreach and publicity for cool projects than as serious sources of funding for science. In that context, I’m seriously tempted to put together a funding request for banana slug genomics, which has a “coolness” factor that few of my other projects have.  What’s stopping me is mainly my fear of the University bureaucracy, who will prohibit me from attempting crowd-funding, soak up any money that comes in as “overhead”, or just make it so difficult to use the money that it would be less painful to fund things out of my retirement savings.

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