Crowdfunding has become a popular way for startups and inventors to garner investors who can make ideas come to fruition. Traditionally funded by governments, educational institutions, and in some instances, large corporations (think tobacco), crowdfunding this research may represent a milestone in the democratization of the direction scientific research.
In theory crowdfunding research would take the objective of the research away from serving the agendas of government agencies, educational institutions, and corporations – who have traditionally been bankrolling scientific research in the form of grants – and put it in the hands of the people, serving the best interest of society as a whole. Looking at the bigger picture, crowdfunded research is also about the ability to experiment and fail, to take bigger risks, and to boldly explore the unproven. This ‘playing around’ with a ideas have often resulted in unexpected advances that would not necessarily have come from playing it safe – researching plausible theories with a higher chance of achieving the desired results, a common criteria educational institutions and government agencies use with regards to awarding research grants.
A great example of these opposing approaches to scientific research funding is the National Institutes of Health (NIH) versus the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) who have different approaches and surprisingly different results. In his book ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works’ New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer explains how the NIH – the world’s largest funder of biomedical research – evaluates proposals by analyzing projects on how scientifically sound they are, and how much preliminary evidence exists. Their goal is to minimize the risk of funding a failure, and thereby wasting taxpayers’ money. In contrast the HHMI – a non-profit that was set up to explore the boundaries of science and knowledge – encourages researchers embrace uncertainty, take risks, and not be afraid to tackle the unproven, even if it means failure. The HHMI doesn’t analyze the soundness of the research, but the potential of researchers by looking at their previous research.
In analyzing the data from both bodies economists at MIT and UCSD found that HHMI researchers didn’t just produce twice as many highly regarded research papers, and won substantially more awards than NIH researchers’ projects, despite also producing 35% more ‘failures’ than their NIH counterparts.
In this light crowdfunding does make a lot of sense for driving scientific research in a direction democratically decided by people voting with their dollars, however, according to Professor Anton Basson from the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town, South Africa, the biggest problem with crowdfunded research is legitimacy. “How the persons putting money into crowdfunded research will know whether the research results or the researchers can be trusted, is not clear,” says Basson, echoing Neel Patel’s piece in Wired.
“It may be that the institution doing the research will be the basis for the trust, but otherwise I would tend to be sceptical, considering, for example, the unscientific approach accepted by the public regarding diets, beauty products, financial products, etc.,” continues Basson.
In addition forensic scientist Charles Brown* who himself has had projects funded via crowdfunding also raises concerns regarding imbalances and risk for investors. “Personally I’m worried that a trend toward more crowdfunding for science would lead to serious imbalances in funding based on popularity or ‘marketing’ of research topics…also, scammers. Crowdfunding in its current incarnation has more or less zero customer/donor protection…as far as I can tell [from personal experience] you can pretty much run off with the money,” warns Brown. “However that’s only a problem if crowdfunding starts making up a sizeable portion of science funding, and we’re not there yet.”
In terms of concerns surrounding credibility Patel notes in his article that in order for research to be taken seriously it still needs to pass the test of peer review in recognised scientific journals, which can often sink shaky science. These journals are like the guardians at the gates of legitimate science, keeping so-called ‘junk science’ from being published. The result of this, says Patel, is that funding for these kinds of studies will remain quite low.
Despite this fight for legitimacy, and the large number of loops that need closing and holes that need to be filled, experts agree that crowdfunding has the potential to have a very positive impact on the scientific research community in an age where research grants are getting fewer, and amounts granted increasingly lower. Crowdfunding can result in not only producing more interesting, boundary-pushing research, but also make the direction of research more democratic.
You and I get to decide whether researchers should focus on finding a cure for cancer, or landing a buggy on Mars.