Crowdfunding Outreach: Neurodome, a planetarium show about the brain and our drive to explore

I am part of a project to make a planetarium show about the brain and exploration called Neurodome. First, as detailed below, after trying various traditional funding avenues, we are using Kickstarter to raise the cash. As of Tuesday morning, we are 95% of the way towards our goal of raising $25,000. Please consider supporting this effort and spreading the word! And the more we raise, the better the quality and content of the show and animations! Neurodome on Kickstarter:

Second, given the current crisis in outreach funding, maybe we need to seriously consider crowdfunding campaigns as a mainstream avenue for funding our small projects. It seems like this really could be viable replacement for the telescope-based NASA EPO proposals (e.g, HST EPO grants). This has been successfully done at least once before for Black Sun, a documentary about minority astrophysicists.

Here’s the tale of the fraught funding history of Neurodome from the project lead, Jonathan Fisher, a postdoc at Rockefeller University, and my friend since undergrad at UPenn where we Physics majors together.

We applied for a small grant from the Manhattan Community Arts Fund. The feedback was that our project was more scientific and technical and didn’t really qualify as “art.”

We then approached Sloan, which funds film and theater projects through their Public Understanding of Science and Technology program. At that point, we were not encouraged to apply, largely because the project was at too early a stage and sounded like an arts project than a science communication project. It should be noted that Sloan very recently has been funding more independent film projects, though almost exclusively in conventional (e.g. flat-screen) formats.

Based on positive feedback from a program officer, we the put together a large proposal for NSF’s Informal Science Education (ISE) program. The proposal did very well and was largely recommended for funding; however few projects were funded that year and ours was not among them. More importantly, though, according to the program officer, it turns out that NSF’s ISE program has changed in recent years and no longer supports “product” type projects, like making a film, etc. They now seek hypothesis-driven education proposals, essentially educational psychology/sociology programs and the program has been renamed Advancing Informal STEM Learning.  I should point out the inherent difficulty with the NSF approach: They are requiring a strictly data and hypothesis-driven proposal even for novel “informal” science education projects where educational impact is very difficult to quantitatively assess. Also, any formal assessments typically require surveys, and surveys require IRB approval because you are “experimenting” with humans, and IRB applications require explicit hypotheses and quantitative measurement techniques.

The point? Early stage, innovative EPO ideas—particularly those initiated by scientists—have few avenues of support. And this was before sequestration!

NSF has in the past dished out big bucks to large, well-established production groups that are making traditional, frankly incrementally novel products. WGBH, for example, received $2.9 million to produce Peep and The Big Wide World Season Five. Now NSF doesn’t fund development of products (e.g. planetarium shows). Meanwhile, arts foundations are so ridiculously strapped for cash that they can’t afford to fund anything that could possibly fit into another category.

Now that our Kickstarter campaign is doing well, we have attracted private foundation interest (we’ve been solicited to apply to the Richard Lounsbery Foundation and National Geographic distribution has expressed interest. We’ve found a first venue for our screenings in the East Village Planetarium at the Lower Eastside Girls Club!

What outreach project would you consider crowdfunding? What about going further and crowdfunding the science too, like Travis Metcalf did with FundaGeek? Technical question: Could we give a percentage of the Kickstarter-raised funds to our institutions as overhead so it would “count” as an overhead-bearing grant?

(This post is a bit modified from the draft version which was accidentally prematurely published.)

2 comments… add one
  • Anonymous May 8, 2013 @ 10:00

    Crowdfunding is interesting, but be careful out there. It’s not a panacea. Make sure you understand the appeal of your project, the size of your potential audience, the depth of their pockets, the true cost of what you are offering donors at different levels, and your true budget needs. Sounds like neurodome might be well thought out and just needs a final small push over the top.

    Crowdfunding science and EPO is so new that how big the market is hasn’t been tested yet. At what point is the marketplace saturated with projects? Could be we are hitting that now with just a handful or it could be enormous, none of us truly know.

    Before you launch, think carefully about the risks of failing. If you’re a grad student or postdoc trying to launch some modest budget innovative idea, failure might feel bad but not have much long term negative impact. If you’re a big institution with a lot of reputation on the line, the risks you are taking may be much larger:

    5 days left, $35k raised, $55k to go to a goal that was already reduced by almost a factor of 3. (And, don’t forget that indiegogo takes their cut and all those premiums at different levels cost something too.)

  • Carolyn Brinkworth May 12, 2013 @ 13:40

    I have to say, I’ve been going back and forth on the idea of crowdfunding for a while, but I find that I have a lot of objections to it – some more visceral than others. I should point out that I’m coming from a NASA-based perspective here, so not all of the following will apply to all projects, but in the context of EPO cuts, it’s obviously a big chunk of money we need to find.

    First, I have a very visceral reaction to the idea of asking the public to pay for something that they have already paid for via their taxes. NASA is a federal agency, and everything we produce is in the public domain, released and available for everyone in the country, because it’s already theirs. Asking them to essentially pay an extra tax to get what’s rightfully theirs in the first place feels very, very wrong to me. I also wonder about the legality of a federal agency accepting donations from private citizens. Can we even do that legally?!

    My second worry, amusingly, is what would happen if crowdfunding ended up being successful! Imagine if the government cut funding to EPO, but then realised that it’ll still carry on as normal – that private citizens put in their own money to keep it all going, despite govt cuts, and so less public money is being spent, but nothing has been lost. This scares me. It feels like holding the citizenry to ransom somehow.

    My other worries are more at the programmatic level. First, lack of oversight of crowdsourced funds. While the majority of us are very responsible with other people’s money, it only takes one person to misappropriate funds and then it reflects badly on the rest of us (including our institutions).

    Second, while it seems relatively easy to raise money on the tens of thousands of dollars level, that doesn’t come close to covering the kind of money that people need to do this kind of work full-time. To give you an idea, we have had to think twice about hiring a summer student this year, because in order to pay her $3500 for her time, it will cost us $8500 after benefits (which she doesn’t even get) and overhead are added. Imagine how this scales with full time salaries. Kelle, I realise that you’ve been able to pull together a team of professionals who have agreed to do your project on the side, and so you’ve managed to pull it off for $25k (well done, btw – your project seems really cool!) but it’s not enough money to keep people employed.

    Third, and probably most important, I’d be surprised if that kind of money will cover professional evaluation, teacher support materials or professional development for educators. If I’m wrong about that then please let me know how you did it, because NITARP is costing us $20k for the evaluation alone! I worry that crowdsourcing will lead to scraping together enough money to realise a project, but not providing any of the backup (materials, eval, PD) that turns a cool idea into something that’s genuinely useful for teachers and enhances student learning. All the education research shows that simply producing something cool and giving it to teachers to do with as they please *does not work*. It doesn’t increase a teacher’s effectiveness and it doesn’t improve student outcomes. A successful product needs not only support materials for educators, but also a *sustained* professional development course to help them plan how to best integrate the product into their classrooms. All this also needs to be independently evaluated to check whether it’s working.

    That’s my huge brain dump on the subject, and I realise it sounds very negative. I’m conscious of the fact that I might just be stuck in an old paradigm of thinking and the reality that we are about to have no money to do anything might end up trumping all these concerns from a practical perspective. However, I think it’s worth recognising that crowdsourced funding (in my opinion) can’t replace federal grants and expect to produce consistently high quality EPO.

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