THE BLOG
12/03/2014 01:38 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2015

The Power of the Crowd: Using Crowdfunding to Raise Research Dollars

olm26250 via Getty Images

A little over a week ago, the Washington Post in its "Day in photos" featured a local blogger in Siberia dumping a bucket of liquid nitrogen over his head. Inspired by the Ice Bucket Challenge, he was promoting the natural sciences with the experiment.

This summer, in just six weeks, the ALS Association (ALSA) raised $112 million in donations through its "Ice Bucket Challenge" to raise awareness and research funding for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease. A reported 28 percent of these raised funds are committed to research. The immense success of this "crowdfunding" campaign, carried out on online social media sites such as Facebook, is evident in the fact that last year the organization raised $2.5 million over the course of the entire year. In a recent conversation I had about this campaign with a colleague who teaches Media & Medicine to Yale undergraduates, she reported that, remarkably, almost every one of the more than 275 students in that class had participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge.

The considerable reductions in federal funds for medical research have been felt across many areas and with them, we have seen the introduction of new and innovative methods for raising dollars for research efforts. These findings demonstrate the compelling power of the crowd, especially a younger crowd, and the power of social media and online platforms, for raising funds for scientific research.

This is not to say that the Ice Bucket Challenge has been universally well-received. Criticism ranged from concerns that this campaign would significantly impact donations to other causes to the concern for wasting water, especially in places such as drought-ridden California, as part of the dumping of icy water over one's head as part of the challenge.

The success of the Ice Bucket Challenge comes at a time when using conventional methods of securing research funding, like federal grants, is increasingly challenging. In 2013, the success rate for obtaining funding for a research project grant at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was 14 percent, but more daunting is the fact that the NIH actual pay-line for funding (the level at which they actually distribute monies) was only 11 percent. While slightly more encouraging, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funding profile is not much better, with funding success rates for research grants static at 20 percent for the past three years.

In the environment of shrinking federal funding for scientific research, the "crowd," in the form of crowdfunding, may offer the promise of new and alternative methods for raising these much-needed funds. A number of online sites have become popular hosts for those seeking crowdfunding for projects, with Kickstarter being the most prominent.

Kickstarter, launched in 2009, has drawn in more than 4.3 million people who have pledged over $679 million, funding more than 43,000 projects. While sites such as Kickstarter historically have focused more on creative projects, a newer site, experiment.com, focuses exclusively on raising funds for science: their tagline is, "Help fund the next wave of scientific research." They have just reached a milestone of $1 million raised, highlighting the fact that while the use of crowdfunding for raising research dollars is "catching on," there is a considerable lag behind crowdfunding efforts for creative projects. Nonetheless, these established sites offer the potential of serving as central platforms for engaging the crowd to support scientific research projects that might not otherwise get funded through traditional means. And universities are taking advantage of these strategies in this climate of shrinking federal funding for research.

But crowdfunding does not require the use of one of these sites, evidenced by the recent success of ALSA's Ice Bucket Challenge. It also raises the question of why the Ice Bucket Challenge was so successful, what contributed to the viral nature of its engagement of the crowd, and whether there are ways to operationalize that phenomenon for a standardized scientific research funding system using the crowd? One contributor to the viral nature of this campaign was it was unexpected. In fact, the Ice Bucket Challenge did not originate with ALSA but evolved into supporting the organization's efforts in an authentic and organic way. In addition, a recent Forbes article examining the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge concluded that the important ingredients were that the idea behind the Challenge was "big," "selfless," and "simple." These same ingredients went into the wildly successful "Live Aid" concert from the mid-1980s, which while using the then primary mode of publicizing in television, this effort reached an estimated 1.5 billion viewers, raising over $245 million. With close to 3 billion Internet users and 1.3 billion active Facebook users, the capacity for online crowdfunding for raising research dollars is seemingly limitless. According to Facebook, Ice Bucket Challenge videos were viewed more than 10 billion times and reached more than 440 million people.

Notably, critics might raise the concern that if crowdfunding for scientific research is successful, the federal government may reduce their funding streams to agencies such as the NIH and NSF even further, instead diverting these funds to other areas such as transportation infrastructure. For crowdfunding for scientific research to be effective, efficient and most importantly, sustainable, the power of the crowd must be additive to continued (and hopefully increasing) federal funding sources, not as a substitute. While there needs to be the bolstering of government investment in research funding, harnessing of the power of the crowd through crowdfunding holds the promise of real hope for real results.