Crowdfunding: A popularity contest or a new way to engage the public in science?

Hannah Thetford

Online crowdfunding has been a way to finance creative projects since ArtistShare launched in 2003, but can it also be used to fund scientific research?

Both uBiome and American Gut have had success in providing analysis of an individual’s microbiomes in exchange for funding, and the NASA Emerging Space Report gives details of various projects that have been successfully funded using online crowdfunding. These examples show that it is certainly possible to use crowdfunding to finance scientific projects, but what sort of projects will get funded?

The public will surely be most interested in backing studies involving cute animals, high-profile diseases or ‘sexy’ science of the sort that is often blown out of proportion by the media. Of course it is important to engage the public in science, but not at the expense of science funding becoming a popularity contest.

However Jai Ranganathan, a conservation biologist and co-founder and director of the SciFund Challenge, believes that this won’t happen.  The SciFund Challenge involves outreach training followed by attempts to crowdfund research projects, and Ranganathan says that the most successful scientists were those who could reach out to people and say why their research was exciting:  “Whether a project got funded or not really had very little to do with the project subject, it had everything to do with interest for the scientist and them engaging the public with their science”. [From ‘Crowdfunding for medical research picks up pace’, The Lancet]

A crowdfunding campaign helped finance the attempt to re-establish contact with ISEE-3; launched by NASA in 1978 and now the first spacecraft in deep space to be operated by a private-sector organisation.  (Artist’s concept of ISEE-3. Image credit NASA)

So crowdfunding rewards good communicators, encouraging scientists to improve their outreach to the public. It also typically produces funding on a shorter time scale than traditional grants, allowing research to get underway much faster – but that shorter time scale is because crowdfunding requires no peer review or other vetting.

Science Donors, an under-development crowdfunding platform that will be dedicated to science, says that “Science projects involving university or professional labs will be verified by Science Donor before donations are funded” but many other platforms carry no such assurance. Donors have no assurance that their money is going to people who are qualified to perform the research they are proposing, and there is nobody to ensure that funds are being used appropriately.

There are definite benefits of crowdfunding; it allows unconventional ideas that are overlooked by traditional grant committees to have a chance at being funded, avoids the politics of peer review affecting which research proposals receive funding and increases the amount of money available to fund research. If these benefits can be maintained whilst ensuring that projects are genuine and worth investment, crowdfunding will hopefully work well as an alternative to traditional funding.

What are your thoughts on using crowdfunding to finance scientific research?

Crowdfunding: A popularity contest or a new way to engage the public in science?

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