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Questions for science and the wisdom of crowds

June 6, 2012
Crowd in a street

Crowdfunding for science: will members of the public part with their cash?

Crowdfunding is already passé – not over, just old news. I’ve lost track of how many articles I’ve read that cover how scientists are using “innovative” methods to attract funds from among online science fans. Every week seems to bring a new initiative – almost exclusively from the US.

For this post, I’m talking about the sites such as Fundageek, #SciFundChallenge and PetriDish. They allow scientists to create a page for their research, set a funding target and accept money from members of the public.

No doubt these are exciting developments for the handful of scientists who are able to build online communities around their personal brand and research projects. I admire the way these methods are essentially just new forms of science communication wrapped up in a funding plea.

But, as if I were an investigator in need of funding myself, I’ve been thinking about the future impact of these experiments. I’ve formulated a few questions and answers, and would welcome your response too.

Is this a more legitimate and democratic way of testing what the public wants science to be for?

I think it is realistic, not optimistic, to say that as the internet’s connections grow we should expect to see more engagement in initiatives like these. There’s an upward trajectory already, although data is still short. The more these projects grow, the more legitimacy they will rightfully earn. And the more people they bring along, the more democratic they become.

The issue is that in science, the democratic principle is organised under peer review, and no one is assuming that role in decisions made by the crowd about what to fund. So crowdfunding may be good from a philosophical point of view, but not from scientific and practical angles. Until some bright spark cracks it.

Could research councils ever adopt this method?

They should certainly be looking at it. Crowdfunding works only if the hopeful scientist seeking funds builds an online audience for his or herself and the work they do. More than funding, that communication element should be enough for the research councils to be interested. If they really do hope to guide researchers through the hoops of the impact agenda, crowdfunding would seem to offer an excellent opportunity. And it can also bring in the cash as a bonus.

As crowdfunding opens up the allocation of funds for scientific endeavour, would it make traditional sources look as opaque as a blackout window?

A controversial topic. The Wellcome Trust makes big noises about its openness and the openness it expects of the scientific community. The research councils aim to be transparent and are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

But crowdfunding is problematic because it throws open research to the entire online community and relies on openness – indeed, funders may require results well before they can be published in a peer-reviewed journal. I’d argue that openness is almost always positive, and if crowdfunding presses further transparency on conventional funders, so be it.

Image courtesy of Mark Sardon.

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