Applying for funding in science research is becoming an increasingly arduous task. An ever increasing number of graduates are left to battle over a dwindling amount of government money. There are an increasing number of articles such as Amaya Moro-Martin’s recent column in Nature, crying out to governments in an attempt to secure the future of scientific research. But what can we do in the mean time?
In recent years, crowdfunding has proven itself to be a major innovation, and has an increasing number of success stories in the world of independent business. Here’s how it works: crowdfunding services (such as indiegogo and Kickstarter) allow individuals and groups to advertise their ideas and concepts to the public. Users can then choose to pledge an amount of money to the realisation of the idea, usually with some incentive. Since its launch in 2009, Kickstarter has funded over 70,000 projects, with a collective worth of over one billion dollars. The concept is neat. The corporate middle-man, and any associated tainting and agendas, is cut out and the inventor and consumer are connected directly. But could this work in science? Platforms such as experiment.com have tried to use this approach in science, with smaller success. Why is that?
Let us compare the conditions of the battlegrounds. Are there many similarities between scientific research and for example, the independent gaming industry? The progress of science depends on the production and testing of new theories, in order to obtain the best possible description of the universe and everything within it. Sadly, the success of these experiments are not guaranteed. When an independent game is funded there will generally be a finished product, in spite of any flaws and bugs which may be present in the final game. Science offers no such promise, as a flawed theory quickly loses its value. It must either be rewritten and tested again, or scrapped entirely. It’s a sad truth that gives me the impression that science has less crowdfunding potential than other areas, because of the lack of guaranteed return it can offer.
Whilst I doubt the successor to the Standard Model is likely to be crowdfunded, I believe that it has a place a little further along the science chain, in the area of developing new technologies. Some of the more successful technology based Kickstarter projects include a publicly accessible space telescope, a low cost 3D printer, and a pen which uses conductive ink to allow users to ‘draw’ functional circuits. It seems like consumers are willing to part with their money when the projects benefit them directly. Whilst scientific research is crucial to the development of new technologies, the immediate return is considerably smaller, which I think places a severe limit on the crowdfunding appeal of science.