Crowdfunding academic research might be changing, from a near-stunt to an widely used method of filling gaps in a research group's money supply. At least, that's the impression this article at Nature Jobs gives:
The practice has exploded in recent years, especially as success rates for research-grant applications have fallen in many places. Although crowd-funding campaigns are no replacement for grants — they usually provide much smaller amounts of money, and basic research tends to be less popular with public donors than applied sciences or arts projects — they can be effective, especially if the appeals are poignant or personal, involving research into subjects such as disease treatments.
The article details several venues that have been used for this sort of fund-raising, including Indiegogo, Kickstarter, RocketHub, FundaGeek, and SciFund Challenge. I'd add Microryza to that list. And there's a lot of good advice for people thinking about trying it themselves, including how much money to try for (at least at first), the timelines one can expect, and how to get your message out to potential donors.
Overall, I'm in favor of this sort of thing, but there are some potential problems. This gives the general pubic a way to feel more connected to scientific research, and to understand more about what it's actually like, both of which are goals I feel a close connection to. But (as that quote above demonstrates), some kinds of research are going to be an easier sell than others. I worry about a slow (or maybe not so slow) race to the bottom, with lab heads overpromising what their research can deliver, exaggerating its importance to immediate human concerns, and overselling whatever results come out.
These problems have, of course, been noted. Ethan Perlstein, formerly of Princeton, used RocketHub for his crowdfunding experiment that I wrote about here. And he's written at Microryza with advice about how to get the word out to potential donors, but that very advice has prompted a worried response over at SciFund Challenge, where Jai Ranganathan had this to say:
His bottom line? The secret is to hustle, hustle, hustle during a crowdfunding campaign to get the word out and to get media attention. With all respect to Ethan, if all researchers running campaigns follow his advice, then that’s the end for science crowdfunding. And that would be a tragedy because science crowdfunding has the potential to solve one of the key problems of our time: the giant gap between science and society.
Up to a point, these two are talking about different things. Perlstein's advice is focused on how to run a successful crowdsourcing campaign (based on his own experience, which is one of the better guides we have so far), while Ranganathan is looking at crowdsourcing as part of something larger. Where they intersect, as he says, is that it's possible that we'll end up with a tragedy of the commons, where the strategy that's optimal for each individual's case turns out to be (very) suboptimal for everyone taken together. He's at pains to mention that Ethan Perlstein has himself done a great job with outreach to the public, but worries about those to follow:
Because, by only focusing on the mechanics of the campaign itself (and not talking about all of the necessary outreach), there lurks a danger that could sink science crowdfunding. Positive connections to an audience are important for crowdfunding success in any field, but they are especially important for scientists, since all we have to offer (basically) is a personal connection to the science. If scientists omit the outreach and just contact audiences when they want money, that will go a long way to poisoning the connections between science and the public. Science crowdfunding has barely gotten started and already I hear continuous complaints about audience exasperation with the nonstop fundraising appeals. The reason for this audience fatigue is that few scientists have done the necessary building of connections with an audience before they started banging the drum for cash. Imagine how poisonous the atmosphere will become if many more outreach-free scientists aggressively cold call (or cold e-mail or cold tweet) the universe about their fundraising pleas.
Now, when it comes to overpromising and overselling, a cynical observer might say that I've just described the current granting system. (And if we want even more of that sort of thing, all we have to do is pass a scheme like this one). But the general public will probably be a bit easier to fool than a review committee, at least, if you can find the right segment of the general public. Someone will probably buy your pitch, eventually, if you can throw away your pride long enough to keep on digging for them.
That same cynical observer might say that I've just described the way that we set up donations to charities, and indeed Ranganathan makes an analogy to NPR's fundraising appeals. That's the high end. The low end of the charitable-donation game is about as low as you can go - just run a search for the words "fake" and "charity" through Google News any day, any time, and you can find examples that will make you ashamed that you have the same number of chromosomes as the people you're reading about. (You probably do). Avoiding this state really is important, and I'm glad that people are raising the issue already.
What if, though, someone were to set up a science crowdfunding appeal, with hopes of generating something that could actually turn a profit, and portions of that to be turned over to the people who put up the original money? We have now arrived at the biopharma startup business, via a different road than usual. Angel investors, venture capital groups, shareholders in an IPO - all of these people are doing exactly that, at various levels of knowledge and participation. The pitch is not so much "Give us money for the good of science", but "Give us money, because here's our plan to make you even more". You will note that the scale of funds raised by the latter technique make those raised by the former look like a roundoff error, which fits in pretty well with what I take as normal human motivations.
But academic science projects have no such pitch to make. They'll have to appeal to altruism, to curiosity, to mood affiliation, and other nonpecuniary motivations. Done well, that can be a very good thing, and done poorly, it could be a disaster.