by Pablo Rougerie
The funding of scientific research has classically been done in a top-down hierarchical manner. An established researcher, with a proven publication track record and ideas about how to drive advances in a particular field, compiles an extensive grant application and submits it to a government agency or a private foundation for financial resources. The funding decision is then in the hands of a few key people in the organization, who carefully parse through each application, weighing the relative payoffs and risks involved in each proposal, and finally bestow largess to a few of the most promising applicants, leaving the rest to mutter to themselves about the system and then begin to re-write their applications. However, the recent development of social media and ubiquitous online interactions may provide the means to modify the existing funding situation. The popularity of science-related blogs, YouTube videos, TedTalks, and many other forums underscores the vast public interest in scientific ventures and advances, and the lines of direct communication between research scientists and the public are improving every day. One particular online development that could have major ramifications towards the process of science funding is the phenomenon of crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding is the funding of a given project or activity by a large and usually disparate group of donors who individually and independently decide to contribute. Crowdfunding is a growing business: $2.7 billion have been raised in 2012 and this number is expected to have doubled in 2013 (1). Kickstarter, one of the flagships of crowdfunding, has raised a total of $752 million, with 52 projects raising at least $1 million (2). So far, it has been mostly concerned with creative projects or practical inventions, but over the past few years, its scope has broadened to include the world of science.
Why has crowdfunding become popular in science? In addition to current funding challenges, one advantage is the intellectual flexibility and independence it allows, especially for newcomers with visionary goals. As we all know, strong preliminary data and an impeccable track record of publication are sine qua non conditions to access the hundreds of thousands of dollars of a scientific RO1 grant. However, the attention given to the reputation of the applicant and the likelihood of positive outcomes of a proposal can lead to funding conservatism, where the same people and the same ideas consume the lion’s share of available resources. Unconventional, risky proposals that have the potential to yield compelling results or to take the field in new directions are often relegated to the rejection pile. The ability to bypass the orthodox funding structures and appeal directly to an interested, scientifically engaged public may allow for a new kind of research environment to take hold.
The ability of scientists to successfully engage with this potential funding resource requires a variety of skills and efforts. First, scientists must be heard. The ability of the Internet to connect people and convey information means that there is a lot of competing “noise” out there. So how does a scientist effectively reach out to the public and explain the basis and goals of their project? To succeed in crowdfunding, scientists must take advantage of every technological avenue available to reach as many people as possible: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, personal webpages and more. In crowdfunding, you have to embrace your inner hustler. Posting an abstract is not enough. You need to get creative – how about live streaming lab meetings?
Maximizing your exposure to a public audience takes a lot of time and effort, but just as important as being heard by the public is the ability to be understood. You must learn how to pitch your project to a non-academic audience. Many scientists are deeply committed to their area of research and therefore hold the importance of their question as self-evident. Now, with crowdfunding, scientists must become storytellers, with the ability to quickly capture someone’s imagination as to the potential importance and impact of a particular line of research. What can these findings teach us about how the natural world works? Can any knowledge generated from this help to solve any particular problems? What further questions does the work generate? Making your research exciting and sexy while avoiding hyperbole can be quite the challenge, but the rewards of an interested and engaged public willing to express their support through financial contributions makes the effort more than worthwhile.
A good crowdfunding campaign must contain some kind of incentivizing reward system. In the case of creative projects or local community initiatives, the incentives are rather obvious: they are the products and services generated by the project. When it comes to basic research it may seem as though all that scientists have to offer is knowledge at the end of a long, circuitous path. Well, this path of discovery itself is actually that reward. Once the project is funded, scientists should regularly update their donors with their thoughts, progress, ideas, obstacles, results, and, hopefully, successes. By doing so, they provide a valuable window into the process of research science: sometimes exciting, often frustrating, but ultimately rewarding.
The communication regarding the ongoing research process can go both ways. People who fund the project can also express opinions, ideas, and comments at each step of the project. This input might be candid, and it will not replace the skills and knowledge of the investigator, but it can help a researcher keep an eye on the “big picture” and avoid the kind of myopia and blinkered vision that intense specialization can lead to. This two-way communication could help foster a more engaged and intricate relationship between the public and the scientific world.
There have been previous efforts to harness the interest and capabilities of the lay public towards further scientific goals. One of the best-known examples is perhaps the SETI program. In SETI@home, the idle computing power of personal computers connected to the Internet was used to analyze a large amount of data. Similarly, the Folding@home program allows people to install software on their computer that contributes processing power to collaboratively simulating protein folding or rational drug design. This kind of participation by people mainly consisted of allowing the use of idle computing power, not any real active input. But now, we’re shifting from this passive kind of crowdsourcing to an integrated, thinking community of academics and non-academics, where people can become both investors and contributors to the process of research. This level of engagement and interactivity could very well be the hidden gem of crowdfunding.
Some researchers who have gone through the process of getting their project funded by the public say that, to their own surprise, a big reward for themselves was not simply the cash, but the perception that there were people who care about their research (3,4). The feeling that people were interested enough in their work to seek out the researchers, communicate with them about their work, and contribute their own money to help the project was enormously positive and beneficial. Many of us go through phases of doubt about the impact and the meaning of our research. Many of us have trouble describing the raison d’être of a project that will be heard and understood by 100 colleagues at the most. With crowdfunding, we have the possibility of sharing our research with people elsewhere in the world who like it, want to learn about it, and want to keep it alive.
What are some of the possible concerns of crowdfunding science? Many scientists may bristle at the idea of non-experts in the public having the expertise and immersion in a given field to be able to judge the relative merits of a given proposal. Will people be bamboozled by wildly optimistic promises of cancer cures or longevity treatments that are “just around the corner”, instead of being willing to fund “non-sexy” projects that may incrementally contribute to advances that are years or decades in the making? Also, given how much money people are willing to spend on things like homeopathic remedies, astrological readings and faith healing, how discerning can the public be when it comes to judging the merits of hard scientific research or the relative significance of the p-value of a given experiment? What kind of accountability does the recipient of crowdfunds have to his or her donors – how can the donors be sure that their funds are being well-spent, when the output is not something tangible like a music album or a new kitchen device, but a report of scientific inquiry? These and other questions must be considered as this new funding technology continues to develop.
Scientific crowdfunding is still in its infancy—it is not yet possible to gauge how big of a game changer it will be for researchers. So far the amounts of money collected through crowdfunding have remained very small in comparison to the expanding cost of research, and big projects still need to be financed with classic sources of funding. However, the expansion of crowdfunding suggests that a growing part of lab budgets will rely on it. The potential development that crowdfunding brings to communication between scientists and the public is a real innovation and as ambassadors of science to the public, we should encourage this growth in the democratic funding of science with enthusiasm and interest.
Pablo is a French postdoctoral fellow at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, hiking and cello lover, food enthusiast and cocktail apprentice. He did his undergrad at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Lyon, France and obtained his PhD at the Paris-Descartes University in Paris. His current work deals with the general cell biology of macrophages, mostly cytoskeleton dynamics and cell biomechanics. Pablo is seeking to progressively move his field of research toward the interface between cell biology, biophysics and bioengineering. While dearly missing the sweet life of Paris and the pleasure of French cuisine (cheese, I love you!), Pablo is eager to further experience the life in the US and plans to stay in this country for a while longer.