Crowdfunding science March 20, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
A recent posting in this blog discussed the crowdsourcing of science. This measure makes it possible for people to donate their energy and expertise to the completion of a scientific project. However, what if you are interested in promoting the progress of science but do not have time or expertise to donate? Another option is crowdfunding, wherein people are persuaded to contribute money to the completion of a project. Instead of participating in a scientific activity, you can provide money to those who are willing and able.
(US National Archives/Wikimedia commons)
There are already several sites that facilitate crowdfunding of science. Basically, anyone can navigate to one of these sites and read over pitches put together by scientists looking to carry out some kind of research. If readers like the pitch, then they can donate money towards its completion. Part of the trick for hopeful scientists is to put together a persuasive pitch.
The appeal of some projects is easy to understand. Some are related to ecology and conservation. For example, Wallace Nicols wants money to study sea turtles living near drug trafficking sites in Mexico. One can easily imagine that drug trafficking is not highly compatible with sea turtle survival. Craig Packer is looking for funds to promote his study of lions of the Serengeti. There should be a ready pool of pro-conservation folks would enjoy contributing directly to efforts such as these.
Other projects are a little more quirky. For example, Patricia Brennan and Diane Kelly asked for funds to travel from Massachusetts to a farm in Quebec to study the (explosive) force of duck ejaculations. I can imagine that this study would appeal to some just because of its subject matter. However, it did not achieve the desired level of funding.
The prospect of crowdfunded science raises some interesting questions. For example, how will science be influenced by this novel source of capital? Jeffrey Marlow notes some of the pros and cons. As noted above, the public’s taste in science may or may not align with what work is the most worthy of pursuit. Projects that fit in with popular movements, such as ecological conservation or SETI Stars (looking for ET) should do well. Other projects, such as domesticating algae enjoy less traction with the public, even though they might produce worthwhile outcomes.
Marlow also points out that crowdfunded science faces a sort of dilemma. The idea of crowdfunding is to make reasonable amounts of money available on fairly short notice. However, trying to do science in a hurry can present problems. What if the research raises some difficult ethical issues for instance? At a university, researchers usually need approval from an ethics review board before permission is granted to undertake research with humans or animals. Do crowdfunding websites have the expertise (or the mandate) to fulfill this function? Although some sites perform some form of curation, the usual quality control model in Web 2.0 is reputation management, that is, user reviews. Such after-the-fact assessment will not be proactive enough to regulate some work that might be funded through the Web.
Another issue would be the effect of crowdfunding on other sources of funds. Will grant agencies cut back on their funding initiatives if they believe that some projects could be funded through the Web? It would surely be a temptation in an era of fiscal restraint in government. Is that a bad thing? For whom?
Certainly, crowdfunding will be a blessing for some scientists pursuing work that otherwise would not go ahead. Also, it may increase interest and experience among scientists in how to communicate their work to the public. That, certainly, would be a good thing.