Kickstarting Crowdfunded Science

Late last week, many scientists learned they won’t be getting National Science Foundation grant support this round–usually because there isn’t enough funding to go around. And as I was winding down my own (unsuccessful) Kickstarter campaign this week, it got me thinking about why there aren’t more crowdfunded science programs.

For starters, the NSF is probably the ultimate in crowdfunding since it gets its budget from taxes and fees levied by the US Government. It already solves a difficult collective action problem by aggregating funds to support projects of specific types within budgetary ranges deemed appropriate by experts in their fields.

Doing science is expensive. Even if the salary of the Principal Investigator is covered by the institution, salaries for post-docs, undergraduate research assistants, and stipends for graduate students are not. Science is learning by doing and making observations.  Employing people from diverse backgrounds to bring new perspectives to those observations and spend their time on it is a big part of making science happen.

While there is plenty of crowdfunding for technology–from satellites to lightbulbs–science is a more difficult campaign to launch. On the occasion, Forbes writer Seth Porges points out a couple of obstacles, including politics and incentives. To these two, I’ve also seen literacy mentioned as a barrier.

Indeed, science is a political process inside and outside of the lab. Science is largely aimed at answering the question, “What should we agree to do when it comes to the physical world?” By creating social tools for organizing knowledge and agreeing how to agree, science assists in helping us coordinate society’s activities in a more cooperative fashion. But it’s also common for many theories to be in flux, and that leads to a lot of politics, especially when resources are constrained.

Incentives are another barrier. Why would an individual choose to contribute to basic science with little in the way of direct benefit? Of course, there are plenty of reasons and instances of altruistic behavior, but in the absence of some cognitive catalyst that would help individuals recognize the benefit they receive from basic and applied science, it’s unlikely that we would see current levels of support replicated on a large scale.

Familiarity is probably the most difficult to overcome. Most questions in science are both nuanced and complicated. It takes a tremendous investment of mental energy and cognitive priming just to be thinking clearly and holistically about problems worth studying.  But is think one way this will happen is when the conversations and issues underlying science start being held in open territory. As more blogs, better documentation, open access journals, and transparent peer review start seeping out where people can actually see it, everyone will benefit.

SciFlies, I Am A Scientist, and Petridish are a few platforms that have started to support crowdfunded science, but it’s not clear which (if any) have designed for the aforementioned issues in a systematic way. Judging by the levels of funding, community size, and design of the sites, they are just getting started. Nonetheless, it appears that younger scientists are starting to embrace crowdfunding as a vector for broader and more impactful engagement with society.

And that’s okay, crowdfunded science is in its early stages. What’s interesting is broader, more particulate layer of support, in addition to investors, foundations, and governments. It starts to give a glimpse of the future, where citizens support research in a variety of ways. Design researcher Jan Chipchase recently remarked in a podcast with the Economist that the age of the impartial observer is over. When the subjects of research can turn their lenses on those that are studying them (corporate R&D particularly), we start to live in a world where science is more conditional, contingent, and beholden to its outcomes–stated or otherwise.

But instead of trying to fund entire research projects, perhaps crowd funded could take a more piecemeal approach. This creates new transaction costs, but that’s exactly what the web has grown to exploit or minimize, depending on where you sit. For crowdfunded science, here are few, more manageable, areas to focus on:


  1. Fund tasks not research. Science is composed of multitudes of tasks, from cleaning vials to sorting data and writing figure captions to building a meth lab and doing a network analysis of crowdfunded science itself. Tools are continuously being developed to make formerly tedious tasks like formatting citations more automated and less painful. While automation is rapidly advancing research in genomics, for example, there is still plenty to be done for non-automated tasks. Crowdsourced science is one approach that’s grown massively, and people are embracing micro-tasks like folding and finding new protein configurations, mapping stars, and counting birds.  But more to the point, there’s a lot of tasks in science that can be shared among those that have the tools and infrastructure to carry them out. Furthermore, individual tasks have defined narratives from inception to completion and concrete results that make for a better crowdfunding pitch. For that matter, science could use a TaskRabbit.
  2. Support people and their development. Like it or not, personality drives science in the open crowdfunding landscape. People are more easily drawn to inflated statements, snazzy dressers, and clarity over consideration. I’m not advocating for this, but I am saying that people provide a good story for crowdfunding of science.  Their resume is a narrative, and their successes and failures are social. Building a crowd of support for current and future researchers could be a great pathway to support. But what if you aren’t a snazzy dresser? Well, that’s what collaboration is for.
  3. Launch documentation, media, and deliverables. Documentation takes time. Making movies takes time and resources. We can help catalyze crowdfunded science by supporting the stories need to be told to kickstart finding in the first place. How about a cinematic grant application to the NSF? Do you think they would take it if it were posted in YouTube? What if that monograph was a big coffee table book? Or how about more media-rich documentaries of the of a lab’s research, implications, and connections?


all images cc via Ethan O. Perlstein


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