Crowdfunding Science – An Opinion Piece

By Natalie Jonk

This is a guest post by Dominic Stephen, a supporter of research on Walacea

Society’s fundamental building blocks – its politics; its finance; its science – are migrating rapidly from being managed across the surface of the earth to the invisible ‘interweb’ floating above it. Should scientists utilise these new building blocks to crowdfund their work?

Wallacea is the group of islands where Alfred Russel Wallace discovered evolution.   Wallace funded his work through crowdfunding (without the internet) in 1858. Wallace inspires us.

Wallacea is the group of islands where Alfred Russel Wallace discovered evolution. Wallace funded his work through crowdfunding (without the internet) in 1858. Wallace inspires us.

Global connectivity seems only ever to be growing; now, anyone with a media device and internet connection can share content at a negligible cost that could reach millions of people. The internet’s recent wave of crowdfunding campaigns presents scientists with a new funding opportunity that means that they no longer have to appeal to society’s leaders for grants and green lights. They can instead share their idea via crowdfunding science platforms such as Walacea, and strive to appeal to the wishes – and wallets – of their global online community.

Through crowdfunding, multiple small and large donations contribute to a collective new pool of cash for scientific research that is adding to the money that is already available to research through government and charity grants.  In this way, crowdfunding science can liberate scientists from having to conform with funding bodies, universities and publishing hours.

A new funding path for young scientists?

Famous experiments in the past have been lead by scientists of all ages, Wallace for example started working on evolution independently in his twenties. Yet today due to the hierarchy and reducing pool of governmental grants, the future of exciting scientific discovery has seemed to grow ever more inaccessible and competitive. In general, principle investigators responsible for experiments with big budgets will have spent many years climbing the academic ladder in order to have the opportunity to lead their own experiments.

The bodies issuing grants are terrified of awarding them to the wrong people so it is far easier to award grants to senior professors rather than an up and coming possible genius whose ideas may seem a bit far fetched but could also be groundbreaking. However, through crowdfunding science, young potential geniuses can ask the crowd for support and bypass the whole bureaucratic process.  They can build a network of supporters, share their passion and take the public on their journey of discovery and possibly leap frog the long slow slog up the academic ladder. Thereby instead of painstakingly waiting for their seniors to retire or be offered better positions elsewhere they can simply skip the queue and fund their work independently.

 

Crowdfunding research for some, is potentially a very appealing alternative to the conventional path for funding. Researchers who on paper don’t suit the government bodies or who don’t have the patience or will to complete grant forms after grant forms that are 20 pages long then wait six months for them to be approved or declined can choose this strategy instead. It’s fast, requires a completely different skill set in reaching funding goals and can actually be quite fun.

A Potential for Viral Outreach and Global Democracy

Walacea  is excited by the financial and democratic potential that can be unlocked via the web. By combining the viral potential of social networks with a process of scientific screening, experiment proposals can enjoy widespread publicity and validation from the crowd. And it’s faster, too – where most science grant requests usually take anywhere upward of six months of bureaucratic processing to be evaluated, crowdfunding platforms sidestep these time-consuming demands. The funding of Walacea’s World’s First Brain Imaging Study of LSD, for example, was achieved in less than two months, after raising more than double it’s initial target and actually reaching its target in just two days! In addition, the campaign video had 493,000 views which is pretty outstanding in terms of scientific outreach!

Crowdfunding science, not only can help leverage more money into science, it will help people see the personalities of scientists, what drives them and this could lead to more role models.  There are constant complaints about not enough women going in to STEM and that there aren’t enough female scientist role models.  Crowdfunding science can change this by helping us not only learn about the science but also the passionate people who conduct it.

Crowdfunding science role model

Could crowdfunding science help create more role models who are scientists? Robin Carhart-Harris, is definitely growing a bit of a fan club. How many more scientists are there out there who the public can admire. Our guess is quite a few!!!

Crowdfunding science gives the public the opportunity to help with the big decisions that selective governmental and educational institutions often have to make about what gets funded; it taps into the Internet’s shared social networks, which are more organic, up-to-date and flexible, rather than stratified and isolated hierarchies. This ultimately allows citizens to become stewards of the science that changes our world.

It can stop scientists going round in circles with funding…

In addition, Walacea can help break the vicious cycle of scientists having to defend their grant requests with previous experiments, themselves requiring grants.  So many funding bodies want to see pilots or opinion surveys before they can apply for large grants creating barrier after barrier which is both frustrating and demoralising. Just last week we had a discussion with a brain surgeon who is interested in doing an opinion survey on a new technique for treating alzheimers.   It is quite radical and he wants to ask other health care professionals and patients if they think it is a good idea before applying for a grant but this will cost around £5k and he is considering crowdfunding this rather than applying for a small grant.

Perhaps most importantly, by allowing science to be moulded and directed by the decisions of a democratic public, its appeal is changed dramatically – each generous backer is involved directly in a creative scientific process that they would have otherwise been excluded from; they learn about the science they are supporting, and help see the project evolve and come to fruition. From a subject that used to be seen as occurring exclusively behind the closed doors of a sterile laboratory, crowdfunding is helping to transform science into something engaging, accessible, relevant and very real.

Crowdfunding Science is still in infancy

Still relatively young, however, crowdfunding science is not without its criticisms and challenges: some worry that in gaining public appeal the proposed experiments may suffer a reduction in quality, being less subject to the rigorous screening of a team of experts; also, ‘sexier’ campaigns may overshadow less publically appealing yet more valuable ones, and the general public may be vulnerable to coercion through exotic-looking ‘buzz’ words and fancy science jargon. However, it is arguable that any science – if valid – is good science, and if crowdfunding science can help generate large public interest in science and create new role models, then the net will widen, gradually giving an equal chance of success to more numerous and diverse campaigns in the near future.

If you want to see science become more democratic through crowdfunding science we urge you to browse campaigns on Walacea, give us some feedback about what you would like to see and perhaps make a pledge and see if you enjoy the journey of discovery!

If you are a scientists and would like to give crowdfunding your research a whirl, drop us a line! info@walacea.com

 

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