12/12/2014 Peter Durantine

College Tests Crowdfunding to Support Scholarly Research

This magazine article is part of Autumn 2014 / Issue 79

Always creating new opportunities, technology is now providing another means by which colleges can obtain greater academic research and institutional support. The latest is crowdfunding, a social media appeal to the public for donations, which more and more colleges, including Franklin & Marshall, have adopted.

It started as a pilot program in June, when a former F&M anthropology professor, Sonja Schwake, took her search for research funding to Experiment.com, a crowdfunding Internet platform. Scholars utilizing the site produce short videos introducing their research projects, which they then take to social media to solicit donations in support of the work

The success of Schwake, who now teaches at Penn State Erie, led the College—one of the first liberal arts schools invited to partner with Experiment.com as it scales up its operation—to expand the pilot program to more faculty members who launched their projects on Experiment.com in late August. F&M is studying the effectiveness and integrity of crowdfunding for scientific research in the liberal arts setting.

“You want to make sure the source of the money does not bias in any way the work you are doing,” said Vice President for Planning and Vice Provost Alan Caniglia, citing a chief academic concern about crowdfunding. “That vigilance is really important.”

Caniglia said the College would assess the outcomes of crowdfunding once the 40-day fundraising period ends in the fall. “Crowdfunding is an exciting area of interest,” he said. “I think it’s more likely to become a trend rather than fizzle out.”

Experiment.com does not accept anonymous donations, and project leaders are free to reject donations from any source. Some F&M faculty said they are concerned that crowdfunding could replace traditional sources of funding, most often government agencies, foundations, nonprofit philanthropies, etc. But Ryan Sauder, F&M’s senior director of college grants, said it’s more likely to augment existing funding streams.

If anything, Sauder said, “it may support preliminary research that attracts greater funding from traditional sources or serve as a valuable new source of funding for scholarly endeavors in significantly under-supported areas, especially in the social sciences.”

The F&M faculty members who agreed to engage in crowdfunding—after the Office of the Provost and the Office of College Grants vetted their proposals—say they view this funding as a stepping stone to eventually securing grants from an institution such as the National Science Foundation.

“It will be perfect to demonstrate that any larger funding we get won’t be wasted,” said F&M Professor of Government Stephen Medvic, who is seeking $5,300 to launch his project. The money would cover the costs of extensive interviews he said he needs to conduct to determine what Americans expect of their democracy. “With research, a lot of times it’s hit-or-miss.”  

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