The Madness of Crowds: Microphilanthropy has its Rewards

March 2, 2013 | by

Krist T. Azizian

Those venturing forth to pursue independent careers as scientists are continually faced with the daunting challenge of securing funding for their ideas. Unfortunately, the competition for funding from agencies that dole out large sums of money is stiff and budgets are prone to slashing as a consequence of political outcomes.

An argument can be made for a new approach, fueled by the Internet, which helps circumvent some of the traditional avenues and constraints presented by large funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

A recent article in The Economist describes the advent of crowd funding, a method by which scientists look to the general public to help fund their research usually through dedicated sites including Rockethub and Petridish. Donors can peruse these sites and grant small sums of money to fund projects of interest in order to meet the target sums set by the researchers. Falling short of these sums by not collecting enough pledges means the project will not be funded, which happens often.

However, scientists can reap the benefits of funding without the traditional hassles if there is enough interest and the target sum is met. It comes as no surprise that successfully funded scientists stipulate ways to keep themselves accountable, usually by freely sharing the data they generate and posting regular progress reports.

I checked up on the progress of one scientist mentioned in the article that proposed a $25,000 target to fund research investigating the effect of amphetamines as mental health drugs on the brain. On Nov. 21, he had raised about 70 percent of his target with three days left until the deadline. The project page is worth reading to understand how these proposals are fashioned.

The proposal clearly explains what the problem being addressed entails and justifies the need for raising money through crowd funding. The scientist then explains how the research will address the problem, including the method of experimentation.

The proposal also stresses an open, interactive model through which donors can access data uploaded to figshare, read blogs on the lab’s website describing research progress and rest assured that the findings will be published in an open access journal.

Finally, there is an explanation of how the money will be budgeted, and rewards may be offered as incentives for donors. A donation of $25 gets you a 3D-printed molecule of methamphetamine. Donate $1,000 and you get access to lab meetings and a chance at authorship (contingent upon contributing substantive ideas to the project).

The process of crowd funding is appealing because a scientist can fund a reasonable idea at its inception without the burden of compiling sometimes prohibitive preliminary data as proof-of-concept for a project of much grander scale. This allows a step-wise approach because the success of one small project leads to another until a formidable problem has been solved. Crowd funding small projects also lessens the anxiety associated with keeping a massive grant by continually demonstrating success, which grantees hesitate to admit is unrealistic. Crowd funding might also decrease competition because it is unlikely that a small, specific project proposed by one group would overlap fully with one proposed by another group.

Nevertheless, securing grants through crowd funding may not overcome some of the traditional barriers associated with how modern science is practiced. For example, it remains to be seen if a scientist can enter academia without grants via traditional routes. For now, crowd funding might only serve to supplement traditional grants. Also, the transparent nature of data sharing that crowd funding promises might back-fire by rendering redundant work that is readily scooped by competing, secretive groups. And, although collaboration is key to producing good ideas, too much collaboration and input and too many promises might only serve to hinder progress.

In any case, it is becoming increasingly clear that crowd funding offers distinct advantages as a means to revolutionize the way scientific research is funded.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Amanda Lyn Gunn
    Mar 6 2013

    I love this article. Just this morning I was talking with somebody from the National Academies about whether this is a truly a viable option, and what sort of precedent that might set. On one hand, you always hear people gripe around tax season about wishing they could just fund the things THEY find important. In such a case, welcome to being able to choose scientific projects you believe in! Huzzah! On the other hand, a combination of popularity and success in this format could be a slippery slope with regards to the allocation of funds for research between the government and the public.

    At the AAAS annual meeting, there were many references to economic studies on basic science as an investment in our country. Countries strongly invested in the basic sciences tend to see a far better return than, say, a standard 5% return investment. Unfortunately, that is over the long term and the short term market may seem a bit volatile.

    So the question is, by participating in crowd source funding, do we set a precedent that – in times of cuts and sequesters – prompts a discussion on whether basic science funding should be a priority for the government? (ie; because we can find another source, because the returns are not always obvious to the public, etc.)

    • Krist Azizian
      Apr 25 2013

      Amanda, I don't think that crowdfunding will necessarily turn out to be a "disruptive technology" that will provoke a change of government policy towards research funding. In fact, during tough economic times, I think that federal funding agencies would welcome a working alternative and might even defer to it. In terms of benefiting the economy, basic science research through crowdfunding should result in new technologies that help the economy, and consequently governments and their budgets. The end result will likely be the same, if not greater, when compared to science funded by private or federal institutions.

  2. Nick Snead
    Mar 7 2013

    You conveyed something that I never really thought about but is true: For most grants, project leaders need to think big picture and ask for relatively big money (e.g., even though NIH grants are often at least hundreds-of-thousands of dollars, even $25-50K is a lot of money). But, by being able to secure incremental funding via crowd funding for projects that will yield an answer relatively quickly, the project leader can get at least SOME money, rather than ZERO if the project leader didn't have a good enough long-term plan.

    • Krist Azizian
      Apr 25 2013

      Yes, I think this is one of the most important and attractive ideas behind crowdfunding. It provides critical flexibility so that adjustments can be made to a research agenda without too much anxiety. If an idea fails one can modify it and collect funding again. Negative results won't necessarily be punitive. That will then likely lead to good, reliable science.


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