Online crowdfunding offers alternatives for researchers needing smaller budgets

Jennifer Pournelle learned three weeks ago that she had scored a high-level meeting to launch a rescue program for collapsed marsh ecosystems in Basra, Iraq. She and her group will test whether brackish water that is a byproduct of oil drilling and refining can be used to build new salt marshes, replacing those destroyed in the Gulf Wars.

The catch? Airline tickets and lab tests are expensive – thousands of dollars – and she had to come up with money to help pay for the trip in just one month, way too short a turnaround to apply to usual funding sources.

So Pournelle is taking advantage of a new option through the University of South Carolina Office of Research: crowdfunding.

Faculty and students who have a science-based research proposal can start their own page on to raise smaller amounts of money for field or lab work without going through the drawn-out process of applying for a formal grant.

Pournelle says she prepared her launch page over one weekend, explaining her work in a simpler way than the science-speak required with many grants. “I just can’t do that with any other method,” she says. “It’s a simple need, for limited dollars, but I need it fast. There’s no time for a drawn-out application process.”

If she reaches her $2,500 goal, she can qualify for a financial match from the research office. However, if she fails to reach her goal, all of the money is returned to her backers.

Pournelle is the first Carolina faculty member to try the new approach, which typically draws from a researcher’s friends, family and colleagues. Pournelle relied heavily on her digital professional and social networks Linked-In,,, Facebook, Twitter and Google Adwords to spread the word about her project.

“This doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” she says. “People won’t beat a path to your door to know about it.”

Pournelle thinks crowdfunding will be especially helpful for UofSC graduate students with limited personal budgets.

“It’s not only a great way to fund fieldwork; it puts our broader outreach mission right up front,” she says. “When people see what we actually do out there, they are pleased and proud to support those efforts and thrilled to follow along as the science unfolds. It’s a personal engagement, not just nameless tax dollars.” 

Learn more 

Visit the Office of Research for more information on getting started with on campus crowdfunding. Visit Jennifer Pournelle’s Experiment page to see how you can help.

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