CROWDSOURCING SCIENCE: THE NEWEST REVENUE FOR BASIC RESEARCH

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Written by Elayne Fivenson on January 3, 2015

Basic science research funding through the NIH has become more and more scarce, particularly for junior researchers. As a result, more groups are turning to crowdsourcing to fund their research. Through platforms such as Kickstarter, crowdsourcing has become commonplace for funding artwork, films, tech development, etc. Extremely successful projects, such as the Veronica Mars movie, have raised several thousands, or even millions of dollars, accumulated mostly through small donations. Sites such as Kickstarter allow those looking to spearhead a project to post a proposal with a fundraising goal. Potential donors visit the site and make a contribution to projects that wish to support. Scientists are now hoping to attract the same donations. Several recent articles, including ones featured in Cell and on NPR, examine how this method of funding works and the possible implications it has for the field.

There are several possible crowdsourcing platforms available to scientists. Some are research-specific, such as petridish.org or experiment.com. Others, like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are broad crowdsourcing platforms and include a wide range of projects, with sections for health, technology, and the environment. Even within these categories, there is a diverse array of projects. In the “health” category, fundraising campaigns range from projects looking to support the health of an individual or providing hospice care to vaccinating an entire community. Regardless of the site, most research project proposals follow a standard format. Usually, they begin with a promotional video introducing the research project and the people involved. The proposal explains why this research is important, the impact it will have, and how the money raised will be spent. Most research projects allocate funds to buy new equipment, cover lab space fees, or even travel fees.

An example of a research project highlighted by NPR is Ubiome, a company focused on sequencing the human microbiome. Those who donate receive a kit in the mail to get their own microbiome analyzed. The group hopes to gather enough data to deduce population trends in microbiome composition. So far, the group has raised over $300,000 on crowdsourcing platform Indiegogo.

Proponents argue that crowd-funding science will reward scientists who are able to engage the public. Only those able to successfully communicate their ideas will be funded. The hope is that by recruiting the public to get more involved in research, the scientific community can establish a dialogue between experts in the field and the people they are hoping to impact with their research.

Some researchers are hesitant about the crowdsourcing approach to research. There are legitimate concerns that research will turn into a popularity contest; only the catchiest projects will attract donors. After all, on websites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, science is competing with projects like “the ultimate drinking jacket: the ultimate gift for any drinker!” or “Plexidrone: Making aerial photography a breeze!” I mean, can science ever be that sexy? I don’t want to come off as elitist, but there’s something off-putting seeing proposals for basic science research that strive to improve the world we live in and expand the wealth of human knowledge lumped together with all of these more material pursuits. The root of the concern is that if crowdsourcing becomes a mainstream source of science funding, scientists will feel pressured to compromise their research goals by attempting to woo potential donors that are not experts in the field.

Traditionally, only research proposals that are most sure to produce results have been funded. However, it is important to encourage innovation. The research that has the greatest potential impact often carries the greatest risk and may be overlooked by traditional backers. Crowd-funding rewards scientists that engage the public and think creatively. In a time where the disconnect between the public and research community seems especially deep, maybe crowdsourcing is exactly what we need.

Resources

1. Wheat, Rachel E., Yiwei Wang, Jarrett E. Byrnes, and Jai Ranganathan. “Raising Money for Scientific Research through Crowdfunding.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution2 (2013): 71-72. Web.

2. “Scientists Pass The Hat For Research Funding.” Scientists Pass The Hat For Research Funding. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

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