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]

satellite
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?

Are Prizes like the Longitude Prize the Future of Research Funding?

Matthew Cherukara

This June, it was announced that innovation charity Nesta has offered a £10 million prize for the creation of a “cheap, accurate, rapid and easy-to-use point of care test kit for bacterial infections” under the title of the Longitude Prize 2014[1]. This name hearkens back three hundred years to 1714, when Parliament offered a reward of up to £20’000 (around £2.5 million today) for the development of a method that could determine a ship’s East-West position (longitude) to within 30 miles. Though it took half a century, John Harrison was awarded a significant prize in 1765 for inventing the chronometer.

Since then, hundreds of millions of pounds have been awarded to individuals or organisations for meeting specific targets in the development of science, engineering and technology in similar inducement prize contests. Competitions like the Longitude Prize have (in the past century particularly) been the motivation behind a number of impressive feats of innovation, from transatlantic flight to solving the Poincaré conjecture. So, where do such challenges stand in relation to conventional methods of research funding? Are we approaching a reality in which science is formalised into contests with rigid targets, deadlines and prizes?

There are a number of issues with inducement prize contests: firstly, the targets have historically been set by governments, charities and for-profit corporations, not universities or research groups. While the intentions of many are noble (the XPRIZE organisation aims “to change the world for the better”[2]), they are by necessity short sighted and narrow in scope. Judging between competitors requires well-defined goals to have been originally set, and these goals have to be achievable in order to attract entrants. All this combines to make a system which works best when applied to problems that have already been solved and just require extending or economising (“fly across the Atlantic”[3] versus “fly”, or “sequence the genes of 100 centenarians for less than $1000 per genome”[4] versus “sequence the human genome”). This has its merits, and certain contests will undoubtedly lead to innovations that benefit people across the world, but it is not in the domain of science.

Science, as I understand it, is predominantly concerned with understanding how our universe works. Engineering is the application of this knowledge to making human life easier. This distinction is what makes contests like the Longitude Prize ultimately unsuitable for funding science research. Setting a target of application skips over the necessary steps of theory and experiment for the sake of knowledge itself, and pitting organisations or individuals against one another hinders the global cooperation which has characterised science in the modern era.

So, are inducement prize contests useful for inspiring innovation? Of course. Do they encourage greater public engagement in science and engineering? Yes. Will they replace traditional methods of research funding? Probably not.

[1] http://www.longitudeprize.org/challenge/antibiotics

[2] http://www.xprize.org/about

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daily_Mail_aviation_prizes

[4] http://www.economist.com/node/21534747

Are Prizes like the Longitude Prize the Future of Research Funding?