The power of many
Crowdfunding is all the rage. Scientists aren't holding back
Global recession has meant shrunken budgets for many. And, despite strong economic arguments, scientific research has not been spared. Fortunately for some, such a change comes at a time when crowdfunding is all the rage.
Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding platform, has been making headlines by raising millions of dollars for music albums, video games and comic books. These high-value projects compensate ‘backers’ with rewards. Even though some projects do go sour, most backers get their hands on the product before it can be found on the market, making up for the risk of investing in these projects.
When it comes to science, though, it is difficult to offer such rewards. The most on offer is a peep into the scientific process or some memorabilia. (Although one project offered to name an ant species if someone paid up $5000.) As a result only a handful of research projects have raised more than $10,000.
In an attempt to counter this problem, new platforms, such as Petridish and Microryza, that cater for science projects only, have emerged. Just like Kickstarter, they too follow an all-or-nothing policy. If the project does not raise the stated goal at the end of a 30 or 45-day period, the project owners get no money. But some platforms like RocketHub have broken out of that model and let project owners take whatever they raise.
The lack of tangible rewards means that giving money for scientific projects is as good as a donation. But no crowdfunding platform has as yet made such a ‘donation’ tax-deductible. (Indiegogo, another platform, is working on fixing this.) As almost all basic research is funded through taxpayers’ money, the least such donors would want when supporting basic science is to not spend their taxed income.
Small as it may be, money raised by project owners through crowdfunding is quite useful. Some researchers treat it as seed capital to get preliminary results. If the results are promising, then apply for a bigger grant. There are also benefits beyond the money.
First, those seeking academic jobs are favoured if they have raised funds for research before. Kristina Killgrove says that her crowdfunded project helped her get a job as an anthropologist at the University of West Florida. At the time of launching her project to examine Roman DNA skeletons, which raised over $12,000, she was a visiting professor at Vanderbilt University.
Second, crowdfunding projects force scientists to communicate their science in layman speak. They explain why they are considering doing something rather than sharing the results of something they have already done. The kind of public engagement this spurs is quite different from reading about science in the media or even seeing some at a science festival.
Third, these projects are accelerating the move towards open science. Many of the scientists involved, as a way of being accountable, promise to blog their results. They are also more likely to publish those results in an open-access journal.
Not everyone is optimistic. Many deserving projects might fail to pass through the crowdfunding sieve. Bradley Voytek, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who blogs about neuroscience and has developed a large audience in just three years, says, “Writing about neuroscience in a popular manner feels like cheating. It takes much less effort than explaining other types of research.” Instead funding agencies, it is claimed, give grants on the basis of the importance of the science being done.
Even those who have been successful are not looking to do it again. “I will encourage my students because crowdfunding is for small projects. It cannot replace traditional grants,” says Dr Killgrove.
PS: On November 11th, with Avijit Roy, I will be hosting a session on Crowdfunding Science at SpotOn London.
- Crowdfunding research not yet a crowd pleaser by Eva Amsen
- It has come to this? by PZ Myers
- iCancer: closing the net around cancer by getting the public involved by Stephen Curry
Image from here.