Last year, the UK government gave £2.88 billion to the seven Research Councils for distribution to universities and other research institutions in the form of “grants, studentships and fellowships”, as well as £1.5 billion for “quality-related research” purposes. For a university like Nottingham, this comes to around £64 million in research grants, which makes up 57% of total research-related income (of the remainder, 15% came from EU grants, and the remaining 28% from foreign and domestic charities and corporations).
This public spending on research is set to decrease in the years to come, in line with the Coalition’s austerity programme, and as commentators from the left and right agree, such a loss of funding would be devastating, both to university staff who risk losing their jobs, to the science sector as a whole, and to Britain’s long-held status as a world leader in science and innovation.
Is there a reasonable solution to this crisis of funding? There are those who would argue that only large-scale, government-enforced wealth redistribution could possibly rescue curiosity-based research from the death-grip of fiscal conservatism, and while such a solution may work, it still does not answer the question of how exactly funding is to be distributed between the tens of thousands of scientists and hundreds of institutions who would all claim that theirs is the cause most worthy of cash.
Since 1918, the British government has funded research according to the Haldane principle, which states that “decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves, through peer review.” This was implemented to detach basic science research from political pressures, giving scientists (as a community) the freedom to direct their work in the direction they (collectively) desired. In practical terms, this has resulted in the creation of seven Research Councils (corresponding to seven broad areas of research) which are responsible for distributing the funding they have been allocated across individuals and institutions within their field.
The problem with such a system was originally pointed out by communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal in his 1939 treatise The Social Function of Science where he argued that science ought only to be done in order to support society, for the common good. Bernal contended that research should be planned with clear goals in mind, and that this focus was the only way to consistently improve the quality of life for everyone in a society.
It is clear that these two approaches are overly simplistic. Basic science for science’s sake, and applied science for society’s sake are not mutually exclusive, as history has shown us again and again. The development of X-ray imaging by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895 was largely the accidental result of curiosity-based experiments on cathode rays. On the other hand, early advances in computational methods by Richard Feynman and his students were the direct result of the highly applied Manhattan Project.
Understandably, the vague hope that one day some aspect of science research may find its way into everyday life is a poor motivator for public spending. Governments and the people they represent are becoming more and more accustomed to rapid advances in technology and they expect immediate returns on their investments into science. These expectations are identified formally in the six “priority areas” the UK Research Councils are aiming at, which include adapting to climate change, developing sustainable energy and ensuring global food security. All of these are noble goals, but none of them come close to the purity of Vannevar Bush’s Endless Frontier of “creating new scientific knowledge.”
While Bernal argued that public benefit must be the result of all research, Bush held that science could only progress if it was free from public accountability or scrutiny. A solution which may actually keep both sides happy is crowd funding, where researchers present their ideas online, and members of the public are able to contribute to causes that matter to them. This allows researchers to continue to seek funding for projects that they are genuinely interested in, while giving the people direct control over what their money is spent on.
Crowd-funded science is still in its infancy, although the technique has been hugely successful in raising money for projects in the arts, with $1.4 billion being raised for 70000 projects by crowd funding site Kickstarter since its inception in 2009. The quantities of money being raised for science and technology related projects (through sites like experiment.com and petridish.org) are miniscule compared with public spending and donations from charities and corporations, but the potential is there for massive public involvement in the sciences, and this is an opportunity that should not be missed.
One of the strongest arguments against large-scale crowd funding of science is the risk that it would become an entirely results-driven enterprise, and the expense of free-minded exploratory science that may or may not yield results. While this is a real concern, it is also shared by government controlled funding bodies, and by charities’ and companies’ research and development branches. Ultimately, any expenditure of money by an individual, or organisation, or society, must be justified in terms of its benefit to the spender or their interests.
A major advantage of crowd funding is the necessity of accessibility, which is to say that scientists looking to raise money must make their work appealing to a broad enough audience. People are certainly interested in tangible outcomes for themselves (many crowd funded projects offer small rewards to those who contribute) or society at large, but we also have a desire for knowledge of the world about us, and the direct engagement between scientists and the people who support them makes an excellent conduit for disseminating interesting information.
Today, researchers vying for funding often saturate their proposals with technical jargon to sound impressive to those in their field, and unintelligibly pioneering to those outside, in order to cajole boards into forking over money. And most journals present results in a way undiscernible to anyone who isn’t already an expert. The average crowd-funding donor may be impressed by enough big words, but they probably won’t convince him to part with his (or her) hard-earned cash: for that, the ideas (s)he is being asked to support must be explained clearly and concisely.
Part of what will be required in order to effectively crowd fund any research venture is publicity. This is sorely lacking in today’s science sector, which appears (for the most part) content to leave the mainstream media to sensationalise a few unsensational findings here and there, while most actual news of scientific advancements is circulated only within the academic community. If scientists are truly interested in expanding human knowledge, they should be acutely concerned with broadcasting their work as widely as possible. Crowd funding would force this into the forefront of researchers’ minds.
An increased awareness of science in society will surely lead to an increased willingness to participate though donations on the part of the general public, and will ensure that academia retains the trust of society for years to come. It will also give members of the public direct influence on the subjects being researched. While the argument for adhering strictly to the Haldane principle (for the sake of protecting curiosity-based research) is strong, it is a fundamental principle of democracy and the free market that people be given at least some degree of choice as to what their money is spent on.
This may seem like an inappropriate time to expect individuals to donate money to causes unlikely to affect them directly, but if marketed properly, the opportunity to participate in genuine science will be relished by some. Generosity towards academia is on the rise, too, as alumni donations to universities increase year on year.
To conclude, crowd funding presents an excellent opportunity for researchers to engage directly with the public in order to secure monetary stability in the face of public spending cuts. Increasing public interest and involvement in science can only be a good thing, and donating to a specific cause or project gives individuals a sense of collaboration and unity of purpose that is often lacking.
 Reviewed by Nature here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v507/n7493/full/507427a.html