I’d like to believe that scientists spend all their time either in labs or in the field gathering data to then analyze and present to their peers for feedback. I can’t speak for all scientists, but I have a feeling most of them would like that to be the case as well. Unfortunately, there’s another side of research that remains largely hidden from the public because it’s boring, and it’s not science. I’m talking about funding. I’ve never written a grant proposal myself, but from what I hear from those who have, it’s an annoying and time-consuming process that plagues all researchers. That’s why some have turned to “crowd funding” websites where they can pitch their projects to the public and simply wait for donations.
These websites started primarily as a way to provide funding for creative projects involving film, music and other art mediums. Scientists using crowd funding is a relatively new phenomenon. Here’s how The New York Times described it:
“As research budgets tighten at universities and federal financing agencies, a new crop of Web-savvy scientists is hoping the wisdom — and generosity — of the crowds will come to the rescue.”
“Most crowd funding platforms thrive on transparency and a healthy dose of self-promotion but lack the safeguards and expert assessment of a traditional review process. Instead, money talks: the public decides which projects are worth pursuing by fully financing them.”
The Times highlighted two biology professors from Evergreen State College — Jennifer Calkins and Jennifer Gee — who wanted to study quails in Mexico this fall but couldn’t apply for a National Science Foundation grant because neither of them were principal investigators. Instead, they used a website called Kickstarter.com and raised $4,873 for the expedition.
“I was just ready to do anything it took to do my research,” Gee said. “I collect data guerrilla style — when and where I can! I think my story is typical.”
The downside to websites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and RocketHub is that they don’t funnel projects through a peer review process, and scientists need to have their work vetted by peers for it to be taken seriously. Gee acknowledged that skirting this process was an unfortunate sacrifice that threatened the legitimacy of their research.
One crowd funding website that does involve peer review is MyProjects. The London charity Cancer Research UK started the site to “…let people choose which cancers they want to beat,” according to their online communities manager. All 28 projects on the site already have received a combined $534 million from Cancer Research UK and an additional $1.3 million from private donations through the site.
Crowd funding is a really great idea for art projects, but using it for science is a little trickier. First of all, the peer review process is too important to overlook, so if more scientists want to start using crowd funding, the sites will have to be careful about whom they accept. We don’t want people pouring money into bogus experiments. The second issue with crowd funding is that it’s essentially a popularity contest. A lot of experiments don’t really sound very exciting (or even understandable) to the public, so crowd funding probably wouldn’t benefit them. Fortunately, I can’t see crowd funding becoming important enough in the science world that we would need to worry about some research not getting funded because it’s not attractive to the public. It’ll be interesting to see if crowd funding takes off, but for now, I’m glad Gee and Calkins get to go to Mexico.
Photo: Daniel Borman, Flickr, CC