What do potato salad and a lunar lander have in common?
Both raised thousands of pounds through online crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter allow people to donate towards the development of products in exchange for small rewards based on their donation amount. From board games to beer, many different projects have been launched this way. But would this approach work for science?
In recent years, a number of websites such as Experiment.com and Walacea have sprung up with the specific intention of crowdfunding scientific research. This is likely in response to the fierce competition for dwindling government grants, and the ever-growing population of academics in contest for a comparatively small number of research positions. At first these websites seem like a good idea – they allow scientists to do niche research that would otherwise go unfunded, and at no (mandatory) cost to the taxpayer. For example, more controversial topics of research such as the investigation into LSD as a means of curing depression may not have been undertaken if not for crowdfunding. One of the biggest selling points is that crowdfunding gives the general public an opportunity to dictate the direction of scientific research.
But wait up a second.
Isn’t this the same general public that crowdfunded over £35,000 for a guy making potato salad? What’s to stop people from funding frivolous research just because it’s amusing? It is not cynical to assume that some “researchers” would start to take advantage of the public by creating flashy, but questionable research proposals. One example might be the lunar lander project, Lunar Mission One, that raised over £600,000. Their objective is to get a lander to the Moon by 2024 and not only gather data on the surface, but also to act as a time capsule for their backers’ photos, recordings, and even strands of hair. This sounds like a fun and interesting idea, until you realise that you might need to add a couple of zeros to the amount donated in order to actually reach the Moon.
It’s easy to see why people might’ve taken a shine to Lunar Mission One. What percentage of the public could honestly say that they’d rather donate to something like “Recovering molecular orientation from convoluted orbitals”? But herein lies the problem. The public, not being well-versed in science, may not see the value in more complex research, or could be put off by its complexity altogether. Related to this, the public may not realise when an experiment is unfeasible or suspiciously light on supporting theory. The crowdfunding websites can vet the projects themselves, but some junk projects will inevitably slip through.
Overall, as a supplementary system, crowdfunding could shine. It provides an excellent way of engaging with the public and capturing their imaginations. This rare ability to inspire, while also backing useful research means that perhaps crowdfunding should have a place in science. However, it seems that research funding is not suited to such a paradigm shift due to the sheer number of pitfalls associated with it. Crowdfunding has some real potential, but not as the main source of finance for research.