by Adrienne Parsons, PhD '21
Scientific progress is charging forward with staggering intensity. But with increases to the number of Americans pursuing scientific research as a career and the growing need for the development of complex technologies, the government is becoming less and less able to foot the bill required to maintain this momentum. To compensate, some scientists are seeking alternatives—by appealing to the public.
While charitable organizations and collaborations with industries support academic research, the vast majority scientific progress is funded through federal agencies. These agencies require applications for grant awards in which a scientist writes a proposal for a specific line of investigation and outlines the impact of gaining this knowledge in a broader context. Then a scientist must keep her fingers crossed to be one of the lucky few who gets good news at the end of the funding cycle. With National Science Foundation (NSF) grant submissions hovering at around a 20% funded rate (a statistic that can be even more dismal depending on the scientific discipline), and President Trump’s proposed budget for 2019 being enigmatic at best with regard to science funding, research scientists are looking for alternatives to the standard government-issued research grants on which they typically depend.
With the success of platforms like Indiegogo, Patreon, and Kickstarter, more and more scientists are attempting to crowdsource funding for their work. One platform that allows this, Experiment.com, uses an all-or-nothing funding scheme. Scientists propose a project, summarize its impact, and compile a breakdown of the budget. The campaign is given a set amount of time to reach its goal, after which the backers are billed if the campaign was successful. Once funded, the investigators can keep their backers engaged by publishing lab notes to outline their progress, explain scientific concepts, and expand public understanding of scientific inquiry in real time.
The accessibility of this platform and its broad appeal are strengths, but they also reflect one of the biggest concerns about crowdfunded science: without a government-established infrastructure, virtually anybody can submit a campaign onto a crowdfunding platform. While this does provide opportunity for less established career scientists (or even those unaffiliated with an accredited organization), it also introduces the possibility that crowdfunded proposals could present data that are dubious in quality, if not a scam altogether. While there have been high-profile examples of such abuses, crowdfunding platforms have fail-safes to ensure that donors are backing legitimate projects. Experiment.com, for example, has a committee of scientists who review every submission to assess the merit and rigor before launching it for public access. Platforms also allow established scientists to provide feedback through public endorsements of a campaign.
Successful projects are straightforward with an impact that is clear and interesting to a wide audience. It is much easier to gain support when the goal of the project is to answer a question that a nonscientist can understand and get behind. Unfortunately, even successful campaigns don’t always yield successful projects. While having initial access to seed money can make or break a project, these platforms on their own rarely lead to the type of long-term substantiation research studies require.
But that’s not to say that a project with complex scientific concepts or a long timeline is doomed in crowdfunding. The effectiveness of a scientific crowdfunding campaign lies in the ability of the investigators to communicate with the public and keep them interested in their progress. And social media wields influence. The more eyes that see a campaign, and the easier the impact of the project is to understand, the more likely it is to be funded. Therein lies the greatest challenge for career scientists. Advertising and appealing to the public is not a necessary part of the traditionally-accepted scientific skill set. PhD-level scientists don’t complete nearly a decade of higher education to spend their time self-promoting on Twitter.
But this is something that scientists should care about. We live in a society where science is esteemed and necessary but also difficult to access. More than 75% of Americans believe the world is a better place because of science, and 85% believe that the government should fund scientific advancement. However, Americans surveyed by the NSF could answer only 65% of basic science questions correctly. That number is even lower for scientific topics that are politically or morally controversial.
It is irresponsible of career scientists to not believe that they personally are responsible for ensuring that scientific literacy is valued and sought after by everyone. Crowdsourcing platforms necessitate a kind of interaction that is beneficial to everyone. While scientists benefit from the practice of advocating for their work to a broad audience, the public benefits from discovering the types of questions people want to answer using empirical evidence, while also deciding what type of research deserves their attention and support.
Crowdfunding is changing the dogmatic method for receiving the means to complete scientific projects. This may seem frightening; many think it is unfair to leave the fate of progress in the hands of an uneducated public that may not appreciate the value of more technically complex studies. But the current model for funding is inhibiting the advancement of the majority of proposed science. Meanwhile, the public is interested in science but lacking in understanding.
Scientists are trained to challenge what is known as “true”. Successful innovation rejects the concept of what has always been done is the best way. In terms of funding, what has always been done is doing science a disservice. Crowdfunding certainly isn’t going to replace the grant system anytime soon, and it doesn’t seem like that is its intention. In its current form it is at best a supplement that can fund smaller scale projects or a means to collect preliminary data to make a grant application more competitive. But if using publicly-sourced funds will allow a sense of unity and open a line of communication between professionals and interested nonscientists, it just might be a worthwhile endeavor.