So you want to conduct a research study; why not invite the public to help fund it, or even conduct the work itself? Fueled by the rise of the internet and social media, crowd power is on the rise, and it’s more ubiquitous than you might realize. Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia that anyone with Wi-Fi can contribute to, might be the most famous example of crowdsourced work. While Wikipedia leverages the creative collective, there is another form of crowdsourcing that has exploded in recent years: crowdfunding, where individuals with business propositions, ideas, or projects solicit cash investments from the wider community.
The internet has proven to be fertile ground for significantly widening the audience of such ventures, including Kickstarter and Indiegogo where backers receive “rewards” pegged to their contribution amounts. More than US$1 billion has been raised on Kickstarter with this concept, which co-founder Yancey Strickland describes to the Financial Times as blending “investment, because you are putting money up front; philanthropy, because you feel you are doing a good thing; and commerce, because you get something back for your money.”
How science is riding the crowdsourcing wave
With many governments slashing public research dollars—perhaps most prominently in the US, where the National Institutes of Health saw their budget cut from over US$36 billion in 2010, to US$30 billion in 2014—it is unsurprising that scientists and researchers are increasingly looking towards crowdsourcing as a potential solution to their funding woes. This is especially true for early-career researchers, or scientists pursuing gap technologies that fall into the cracks inherent in conventional funding mechanisms.
The industry of science-focused crowdfunding platforms is a fledgling one, with websites like Experiment.com and PetriDish.org offering the public opportunities to fund research proposals in return for whatever publication comes out of the work. Such intellectual rewards are unlikely to appeal to everyone, but these platforms do provide the interested public with very direct opportunities to “vote” on and validate what they believe is important, promising research.
From the researcher’s perspective, the source of the funding might not matter as much as receiving any funding at all. Alternative sources of funding are particularly important to any researcher working on politically-sensitive, yet still important topics. For example, one of Experiment’s highest-funded campaigns thus far is a study of gun control policies on related death and crime rates in America, a research area where federal funding agencies are not allowed to engage in.
Given that public spending in science and technology research is growing in many parts of Asia such as Singapore and China, researchers in Asia are under less pressure than their Western counterparts to turn to science-focused crowdfunding. However, crowdsourced research is already quietly used in Asia, albeit in schemes that are less high-tech and more grassroots driven.
For example, a project in Beijing has local communities monitoring air quality using sensor-equipped kites. Given the rapid penetration of mobile devices like cell phones and tablets within Asia, apps and games could very well expand on the crowdsourcing revolution, allowing researchers greater and easier access to various types of data from the region.
Can anyone be a ‘scientist’?
Yet it would be dangerous to uncritically embrace crowdsourced research and funding. For one thing, research is generally a long-term, money-sucking affair, with the costs of running even a dry lab for a year easily extending into the millions. On Experiment.com and its counterpart PetriDish.org—the two most mature science-specific crowdfunding platforms available—successful ventures rarely surpass the US$10,000 mark, limiting the impact of such crowdfunded research. Besides which, is it even appropriate to expect anything more than pocket change, given that most of the wider community already contributes to government research dollars via taxes?
Nonetheless, it is empowering in principle that the public can choose the projects it would like to fund, a task currently delegated to funding agencies when it involves tax-backed research budgets. However, a public that is uninformed of the deeper issues of science and research may not be equipped to judge research quality.
Though science-focused crowdfunding could encourage individuals to study and explore the research they are interested in backing, proposals that provoke an emotional response (anything from cute animals to cancer research), or which have tangible benefits (such as technology development for a device or app), are still likely to connect better than very upstream, basic research, where the end goal might only be an academic paper.
Beyond the fact that a journal publication is unlikely to mean much to the typical “every man”, it is probable that research projects are rejected from conventional funding mechanisms simply because they are just not good or robust enough. With the burden of review placed on the public, rather than on peer or expert panels, crowdfunding provides “bad science” with opportunities to circumvent the typical checks and balances and to exploit unsavvy individuals; after all, there are many out there who are determined to believe that climate change is a myth, that evolution is an liberal atheist conspiracy, or that vaccines are autism-causing poisons.
Poorly-designed studies aside, outright fraud is also a very real concern, and one which crowdfunding platforms are poorly-equipped to identify and prevent. For example, a recent campaign on Indiegogo.com for a proposed calorie-tracking “GoBe” bracelet drew much fire from experts as having little plausibility or basis in science; yet still managed to raise over US$1 million in capital. Whether the project can deliver on its lofty goals remains to be seen.
Overall, crowdsourcing raises the question: can anyone be a scientist? Perhaps not, since most of the underlying research is still initiated and followed through by trained scientists. To ensure high standards are kept, it will need to remain this way. The use of Wikipedia, for all its information-sharing benefits, is always appended with disclaimers about its unreliability.
Engagement, not revolution
Reservations notwithstanding, there is still great potential in using crowdsourcing and crowdfunding to encourage greater public engagement in science. Cancer Research UK, a charity whose research is already funded by donations, presents a promising ‘hybrid’ model with its MyProjects scheme. Here, donors can choose specific, scientist-reviewed projects to donate to within the various cancer types. The charity receives the donations it needs to remain sustainable, while donors are given a direct link to the research. This is likely to lead to subsequent donations, or even for donors to encourage their family and friends to join in, shaping cancer research into a truly community effort.
As demonstrated by initiatives like these, there are opportunities with crowdsourced research and funding to improve science literacy in the wider community, and to validate and support smaller, fledgling research, one project at a time. While they are unlikely to disrupt how research is funded and executed, we would be remiss to dismiss these tools entirely.
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