Crowdsourcing Scientific Funding

Kickstarter is the uber-popular funding platform for creative projects, which launched in 2009. Since then, it has crowdfunded projects from the worlds of music, film, art, technology, design, food, publishing and other creative fields. I wondered if they allowed science projects to be funded through their site. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, to raise millions of dollars to fund scientific projects? Surely the public who donates a few dollars for a widget, would also donate a few dollars to cure cancer. But Kickstarter doesn't permit this funding mechanism because they are funding projects strictly for the development or creation of tangible items. I'm not sure about the other crowdfunding sites. However, the idea of crowdfunding science is an interesting one: to put scientists in front of the crowd to raise money, and this is exactly the idea behind the new #SciFund Challenge; unfortunately, I'm skeptical it'll work.

Why? Primarily because the amount of time required to raise the money is much greater than the amount of time required to write grant. Even more so when normalized for how much money you'll receive. As scientists become more and more senior (and more and more busy), several only apply for the big dollar grants, to justify their time writing. Would they rather spend a week writing a grant for $50,000 or $500,000. How about a month of crowdsourcing for funding? For $1000??? I doubt it.

I'm also skeptical because crowdsourcing circumvents an important, and often overlooked part of the grant making process: experts judge which grants get funded based on objective criteria. Now, with funding pay lines between 10-15%, I realize this is not always the case, and sometimes reviewers seem to triage good applications for not-so-good reasons. However, when a grant doesn't get funded and the science is evaluated honestly and objectively, my re-submitted application is almost always better than my original submission. Crowdsourcing will omit this important part of the process.

Also, depending on how much scientific justification is required, crowdsourcing science funding might even omit defining and defending your scientific technical approach. Omitting this step would surely weaken the grant making process, as technical approaches often changes mid-grant. So while the funding climate is difficult for current scientists, and not encouraging for young up-and-coming scientists, I argue that radically changing the funding approach by crowdsourcing funds directly from the lay public would lead to less rigorous grants.

Crowdsourcing scientific funding can also put scientists in a precarious situation: scientists are not always good at "selling" their science, which is what they'll need to do in a crowdsourcing system. Currently, scientists walk a narrow line to sell their science enough to make it interesting, but not too much to be overreaching. This is why several top journals are now excluding priority statements (i.e. we show for the first time...) a matter of editorial policy. Who wants to hear about something (science or otherwise) when someone continues to tell you how great it is? However, to engage the public in scientific crowdfunding, a little over-selling might be required.

Finally, part of the argument supporting crowdsourcing is that "many scientists fear that they will take a major hit professionally by seriously engaging with the public", subtly suggesting scientists need a new way of thinking when it comes to engaging with scientific and non-scientific audiences. However I find this notion untrue. Most scientists aren't afraid of engaging with the public, and welcome opportunities to do so. Whether the venue is a scientific talk to a lay audience (e.g.
ScienceCafes), an interview for a radio show, a video clip describing a new publication, or meet-and-greets with possible philanthropists, scientists generally welcome these opportunities. In fact, most scientists I know love talking about their science, and often times getting them to talk about something else is difficult! However, opportunities like these are uncommon for most scientists, so the perception might be that the lack of participation rests on the side of the scientists, rather than the lack of opportunity.

In the end, most scientists enjoy science. And enjoy the tasks that take them away from doing science less. One of the main complaints that you'll hear from senior scientists who have been funded during fat years and during lean years, is that the lean years require more grants to be written, and less time actually doing science. And while I'm supportive of grass-roots approaches for alternative scientific funding mechanisms, I suspect other grant making approaches that require scientists spend even more time away from the science itself will not be sustainable.

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