Crowdfunding Science: An Idea I Want To Love


The blog has gone a little quiet as I converge on what is hopefully The End of dissertating, which has been taking up an awful lot of time. But a recent post by DrugMonkey on their perceptions of the hurdles crowdfunding science faces inspired me to write a post. Because, while I disagree with some of the specific points DM makes, I tend to agree – crowdfunding’s time has not yet come.

This makes me really, really sad. More after the jump.

For the purposes of this post, let me be clear about something: I’m not talking about “crowdfunded” projects that essentially involve people paying to be a data point in a study. I’m talking about using small donations from interested people to fund research that takes place in universities, research institutions and the like, and would otherwise be something that could be funded by traditional sources.

Maybe this would come in the form of something like Gittip to say “Yeah, your cool science is worth a couple bucks a week to me”. Maybe its in a more formalized form, like the folks at SciFund Challenge or the handful of startups chasing the idea.

Regardless, it’s an idea I would really like to see exist. It’s right up there with some benevolent soul dropping such a staggering pile of cash in my lap that I can just conduct research off the interest. Some of the reasons I in particular have a fondness for the concept:

  • It allows someone to participate, even indirectly, in the doing of science. Which is neat – Kickstarter lets people fund random ideas in technology, board games and performance art, why not science?
  • It’s another funding stream – and really, we could use another one.
  • It aligns particularly well with some of the work I do – crowdfunding can act as a good way to get equipment and the like that it’s normally somewhat hard to get grant funding for. Computer hardware, I’m looking at you. Computer hardware is, I’m pretty sure, the great funding frustration of theoretical labs everywhere. Thousands of dollars in Amazon AWS fees? No biggie. A $500 box to sit in the corner and chug through scripts night and day? Out of the question.
  • It aligns the interests of the public and the interests of scientists in a very direct way. I’ve been lamenting the lack of motivation to write really good code in science – as long as your code can run after the postdoc who wrote it leaves, what does it matter if it’s poorly commented, slow, and uses a ton of opaque variables?  Code, and reproducible data, and all the other things we say scientists should strive for aren’t the things scientists are paid for. What if they were?

Like the title says, crowdfunding for science is an idea I’d love to see come to fruition. I’ve gone as far as gearing up for the last round of the SciFund challenge, putting together an application…and then withdrawing, having decided it was more trouble than it was worth. Here are my reasons why:

Science is expensive. This is the one I’m having a really hard time getting over. Lets look at the last SciFund challenge:

45% of its projects met their funding goals. That’s a decent payline as far as these things go (better than the 10% some government grants are seeing these days), but its far from a sure thing. But beyond that, how much money were these goals for?

The median payout was $1440 in the last round, the mean a little under $2200. And as much as I hate to say it, that’s a drop in the bucket. That – and another $700 – would get wiped out with a single submission to an open access journal like PLoS Biology. Or a single bit of conference travel. Or an alarmingly small amount of computing time.

That amount is about the same as a pilot funding grant at my institution, one I’ve applied for and won, and I can tell you $2000 just doesn’t go very far. It’s good for establishing a very basic proof of concept for a study. Maybe pay for a single spurt of field work to establish the all important “Preliminary Findings”. Get a graduate somewhere for a week to get some face-time with a piece of equipment/person/animal, etc. The term I’ve taken to refer to this is “grant spackle” (as in, to fill in small holes…). Another term could be “found money”. And like $5 in your pocket that you didn’t know was there, found money is awesome.

But you don’t plan on found money. You don’t hire grad students on found money. You don’t establish a productive lab on found money.

Time is Money. DrugMonkey points to institutional overhead as a problem – for readers who don’t know what that is, often a large portion of a grant (often upwards of 50%) goes to the institution for “indirect costs” – things like keeping the lights on and the copy machines full of toner, and other ancillary costs of doing research. At least in theory. I actually don’t think this is as big a problem as DM does – my limited foray into crowdfunding was met with “Meh, its not enough to worry about”.

My problem is time. The aforementioned pilot grant took an evening to fill out, and requires a single web-form report. Crowdfunded projects require videos, incentives, blog posts, Twitter and Facebook activity…and navigating ones way through the byzantine halls of the university funding office, which is set up for much larger grants, and likely hasn’t heard of your crowdfunding source before. Spending a week playing phone tag isn’t much of a problem if you’re talking about a quarter of a million dollars. For $2000? You’re going to eat through that money in a graduate student’s time rather quickly. This was really what killed it for me – the effort to reward ratio was way off.

Is It Repeatable? Even if you had a friendly grants office, or had figured out some clever way like a separately held foundation to handle the money in a fast and streamlined fashion, and even if we were talking about considerably more money, I have concerns about repeatability. There’s been a lot of talk about the importance of social media in crowdfunding efforts for science, and that’s where my concern lies. Is there a pool of sustainable, repeatable donors – donors who don’t know the person trying to get funding? Or is this essentially passing the hat around a potential fundee’s social network, and banking on the novelty of the idea to generate a little cash? If its the latter, there’s only so many times that can be done before it runs out of steam. You might fund one project a year – will you fund two? Seven? What if they don’t pan out – we’ve seen anger centered around Kickstarter projects that have failed, what about SciFund projects that generate a whole lot of null results (something science does on occasion)? Again, that dumps crowdfunding into the realm of “found money” and something you might do in your spare time, or if you really need to fund that field work in Montana or wherever and can’t scrape together the cash for the ticket and food.

Which are noble goals, but not something I think will change the face of science. But I could be wrong – that’s what the comments section is for.


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