The phenomenon of crowdfunding, the collective financing of a project by Internet users, is a big one. It covers many fields today from creative arts to video games to charities to new devices.

On June 19, the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab meeting in Palo Alto, California, presented Crowdfunding: Disrupting Traditional Funding Models, where some impressive numbers verified the trend: More than 500 web portals for crowdfunding exist today and $1.5 billion was raised in 2011 for more than 60,000 projects in a variety of fields. Those figures are expected to double for 2012.

Meanwhile, the June issue of Technology Reviewmagazine identified the practice of crowdfunding as one of the top 10 emerging technologies alongside 3D transistors and nanopore sequencing. The majority of crowdfunding platforms (452 of them as of April 2012) are based in the US. The most well known is Kickstarter, which launched in 2009 and has raised $200 million for over 20,000 selected projects. Sites focused more on social entrepreneurship include Indiegogo and Kiva. But portals are also flourishing in Europe, with 44 sites in the UK, 28 in France, 20 in Germany, and five in Switzerland.

As crowdfunding grows in popularity, so does its reach into fields with traditionally very different funding schemes—science and research.

Crowdfunding Science and Research

For a couple of years now, scientists have also been getting into the race for the public’s direct financial backing, and the number of crowdfunding sites dedicated to science and research projects has been increasing. In the US, there are more than 10 platforms today, including Petridish, #SciFund Challenge (in partnership with RocketHub), FundScience, Sciflies, FundaGeek, and EurekaFund (which specializes in energy and environment). Through these sites and others, the public can choose to give money for fundamental research on bowel cancer, contribute to a study of ancient Roman DNA, and help find the first exomoon.

In most cases, contributions are around $25 each and the campaign goal is generally less than $10,000. Scientists decide gifts for donors, called “fuelers” or “backers.” Dr. Brian Fisher, a passionate entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, raised $2,000 on Petridish to support his work on new ant species in the tropical forest of Madagascar. For a $20 contribution, his research team sent a personal Thank You note. For $100, they gifted a small stone souvenir taken from the highest point on the island. For $5,000, Fisher would name a new species after the donor.

Not quite the stock options and equity handed out to high stakes backers of startups on some of the other crowdfunding sites, but perhaps more enticing for science enthusiasts.

Campaign goals can be much higher than $10,000 on the UK-based platform Myprojects, a division of the Cancer Research UK charity, where totals have topped $135,000. Projects on this site are led by academic researchers who have already received grants from the funder.

“The reason why projects in Myprojects are able to raise so much money is because they already have an audience,” commented Dr. Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of #SciFund Challenge. “The key thing for a crowdfunding platform is to create a strong network of engaged people in the field of research.”

The #SciFund platform considers all projects submitted. Each is reviewed by two volunteer scientists, and the site organizer evaluates validity based on four criteria: risk of fraud, legitimacy of the scientific discipline, credibility of the person carrying out the experiments, and whether or not the amount of money asked for makes sense with the scope of the project.

Crisis in National Science Funding

“Funding for science is getting harder and harder to get,” Raganathan explained at the June meeting of ScienceOnline Bay Area, held at swissnex San Francisco.

In a blog post for Scientific American published last May, Raganathan wrote that “funding for research is becoming increasingly unattainable, with funding rates at their lowest levels in a decade at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of health (NIH), the two most important American science agencies.”

Of the 49,000 requests submitted to the NIH in 2011, only 17.7 percent received funding compared to a 32.1 percent success rate in 2001. Although the number of submissions doubled in 10 years, the budget only increased by 1.25 percent.

Besides, scientists who have left the academic structure to teach in secondary schools have almost no access to national funding. This was the case for Dr. Matt Medeiros, a science teacher at a prep school in San Francisco. He has been studying Hawaiian moths for the past ten years, but when he left academia he also left behind most of his funding opportunities. Through #SciFund Challenge, however, he was able to raise $2,450, a lot of money for an ecology project. “Crowdfunding helped to incorporate part of my research into my work with teenagers,” commented Medeiros, who also spoke at the SOBA event at swissnex.

Catalyzing Public Engagement

Crowdfunding offers an easy solution for people who are interested in giving money directly to science and research. When you support a bigger foundation where overhead costs can be high, you’re never quite sure where your money actually goes and how much of it gets spent on the research you care about. On the contrary, a direct donation through crowdfunding is considered a gift, even if the scientist is affiliated with a research institution. In the case of #SciFund Challenge, an eight percent fee is taken by platform host RocketHub, but otherwise the money goes to the researcher.

Is it all about money? No. According to Raganathan, crowdfunding is also a way to engage the public and connect science and society. When the public is directly involved in enabling research, they are also (hopefully) more engaged in the scientific process and care more about the results. And scientists are obliged to share their process more openly. Crowdfunding, therefore, should have the potential to improve science literacy and strengthen the bond between science and the public.

Most of the candidates for crowdfunded science projects are fervent defenders of the public understanding of science.

“We need to bring back science to the 99 percent,” says Fisher, the ant expert. “We need to bring bio-literacy to the general public. If you are bio-illiterate and you see a forest full of living beings, you don’t realize all the richness and patrimony it contains.”

More than a tool to improve science literacy and engage the public in science, crowdfunding is also a good exercise for scientists. Many of the successful projects on sites like #SciFund Challenge and Petridish involve video and story-telling devices that draw in fans and donors to care about the research. The scientists, therefore, if they expect to receive funding in this way, must learn to better communicate their research to a broad audience. That’s why the organizers of crowfunding platforms propose classes to help scientists communicate their work.

Greg Goldsmith, doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley and another participant of the #SciFund Challenge, raised $1,912 for his research on the effects of global climate change in a tropical cloud forest. “Crowdfunding should be mandatory to second year graduate students because it is necessary to be able to articulate why your research is important,” he says. How do we justify our existence in society? We need to articulate our work for people who fund research, whether it is the public or the Congress.

Could Crowdfunding Lead to Groupthink?

One criticism of crowdfunded research, and the requirement that scientists sell the public on their work in order to get money, is that the crowd may not choose the most important science, opting instead for the sexiest. Which is the general public likely to support first, studies of a devastating disease or a project on theoretical physics that is harder to explain and understand?

Crowdfunding could create an environment where more accessible science projects gain the largest audience, and where scientists who are the most charismatic benefit no matter how important the work of others with fewer social skills might be.

Crowdfunding research does seem to be a promising approach for dealing with the crisis in funding. However, the phenomenon is still young and needs to be observed with more hindsight. Crowdfunding has been shown to be able to raise huge amounts of money, and multitudes of people are jumping on the bandwagon.

But there’s a risk that some might take advantage. Organizers and donors of crowdfunding sites should be wary, be thoughtful, and consider how crowdfunding can be done best for the good of science and of scientists. In addition, state and federal agencies should not give up the responsibility of supporting science.

Crowdfunding research is indeed a complementary tool to traditional methods as long as it strives to reach two goals: the pursuit of science literacy and fair support for scientists.

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