Science takes a long time. Researchers can slave over their work, publishing modest increments for years before something really connects, and sometimes it’s not even then – it can be years later, when someone else makes the connection.
But paying for that time can be politically tricky, and in any case the funding tends to come with the political cycle and with the tide of political and public opinion. So what’s the answer?
(Beth Ditto from The Gossip leaps into the crowd on a Sydney harbour cruise)
Since June, 2006, when Jeff Howe wrote a great piece in Wired titled The Rise of Crowdsourcing, the idea of getting a crowd of passionate amateurs to replace professionals has had a mixed development. Daniel Terdiman made this observation a couple of years later.
One of the elements of Howe’s defining crowdsourcing was a new understanding of how, when brought together to utilize collective intelligence, big, disparate groups of people working on a common task can be extraordinarily productive and deeply creative.
Howe talked about the rise of platforms like iStockphoto and the open innovation site InnoCentive. Karim Lakhani, an MIT technology and innovation lecturer quoted in the article, surveyed 166 problems posted to InnoCentive from 25 different companies.
The strength of a network like InnoCentive’s is exactly the diversity of intellectual background. We actually found the odds of a solver’s success increased in fields in which they had no formal expertise.
As well as InnoCentive, the network of retired scientists and engineers in YourEncore was also tackling serious science and tech questions. In April, 2010, Suzannah Lyons surveyed the current crop of citizen or crowdsourced science projects for ABC Science Online.
Most coverage at the time was about the impact in consumer areas like photography and the media. It seemed as though crowdsourcing would decimate professionals in those fields. And in some ways it has. Newspapers have folded, particularly in the USA’s densely populated media landscape. In specialist fields like technology, science and the arts, the best criticism and news is on blogs. But while there is also a mess of half baked content out there, that only makes makes thorough research, good writing and sharp editing all the more valued. In some ways, it’s just been a shake out and restructure, a new model. The best writers work professionally, and their blogs have almost inevitably become start-ups themselves.
Since Flickr and iStockphoto, there are a lot more photographers feeding into the global pool. Especially since Getty’s link-up with Flickr. At the same time, the increased engagement with good photos seems to have increased demand. So while (maybe) they’re earning less, there’s better photography in circulation and increased demand. It seems like a win-win.
(Australia’s $100 polymer bank note)
Crowdfunding first blipped on my radar with the microfunding site Kiva. That lets people give small amounts of money to entrepeneurs in developing nations. It’s a fantastic, simple concept, basically harnessing the power of the web and the long tail for private sector philanthropy, and it works.
And the model has since expanded to creative projects. Think the Kickstarter and FundBreak (which has just changed its name to Pozible) models, or in journalism there’s Spot.Us. For small to medium sized projects, from a doco about David Lynch to the relaunch of New Matilda. The New Matilda story was interesting, given they raised $150,000 to fund the online media site for a year. And while that’s still comparatively small scale for serious research, it’s getting there.
Kickstarter is billed as a fun way to fund and follow creativity – being part of the process of creative projects you like, even if you’re not a creative participant. Like a part time executive producer, I guess. In a way it’s like informalising the venture capital process, although in most of these cases, the money doesn’t equate to an actual stake in the project, it’s more like philanthropy. And many of these projects then send special gifts to funders – for example, when Diaspora was funded, many of the people who donated were given one-off t-shirts.
Crowdfunding’s never going to replace the traditional ways of funding science, but tapping the long tail of interest in science could diversify the base, so to speak, and open up different kinds of science that aren’t so suited to the current funding climate.
So how would that work in research?
Turns out it already is. Though not in Australia. There’s FundScience – which Nature covered in July, 2010. Like many of these platforms, it uses a reverse-auction like approach, where the project seeking funding puts a number on the page that is make or break for the project. If they don’t make it, they don’t get the money.
Applicants can request up to $50,000 and must be based at a university, so that the money received through FundScience can be administered like any standard research grant. Projects are selected by a network of peer reviewers, and FundScience provides 10% of their requested funds as seed money. Researchers who sign on are also required to blog about their progress to keep contributors up to date on their efforts.
EurekaFund is another microfinance platform for science. One current project, by an MIT team called Raw Solar, hopes to use cheap materials and innovative design to cut the cost of solar. At the time of writing, it’s raised $25,351 of a $75,000 goal (you can even drill into the budget). In Nature, EurekaFund’s Jason Blue-Smith said:
A small grant can help build a track-record of innovation for researchers in the early stage of their career, who may still be working in a senior scientist’s lab and may have few opportunities to develop their own ideas.
Andrea Gagglioli pitched another project, OpenGenius, in a letter to Science. There’s also the Open Source Science Project, which was designed to increase access in both directions – for the public to the science and for the scientists to the public’s wallets.
One of the earlier sites was SciFlies – named by founder and marine engineer David Fries with a nod to fruitflies and their goal to create a ‘swarm’ of science supporters, as well as just generally being fly, in a hip hop sense, which I like. Covered in Nature in May, 2009, it works differently to the others, members or visitors to the site see profiles of scientists and their projects, and can donate to the ones they like.
SciFlies will distribute cheques to researchers after their donations reach $5,000. Anyone who doesn’t make that amount will not get any money, and donors will be asked to redesignate their money.
Another model is LabGiving, which started out of a social inventory tracking system for lab supplies. Part of that system is now linking donors with biomedical scientists, however, it’s not clear just how many projects have been (or could be) funded.
There are quite a few researchers and start-ups going it alone, too. Doing crowdfunding, but without any particular platform. For example, Jackie Schooleman, chief of Virtual Proteins, issued certificates:
I also started some kind of foundation, called “friends of Virtual Proteins” were people could buy small amounts of certificates in the company. It’s a kind of crowd funding.It’s very easy to join, in the early days you did not need a whole lot of money. Because we sell certificates rather than shares, I still have 100% control in the company, and our commercial strategy cannot be influenced by shareholders. By joining they commit money in the trust of the company.
Raising the kind of funding that supports serious, large scale research is probably out of the question, but as Nature Neuroscience editorialised,
The idea is for scientists to raise enough money to run a small research project that requires a limited amount of money and time. The hope is that these small pilot projects could provide preliminary data that would lay the groundwork for more substantial projects. This approach is appealing at a time when the consensus is that government grants are rarely awarded to risky projects, particularly those without pilot data or from young investigators with limited track records.
That’s one of the real benefits of this approach, that it might help some of the riskier, more failure-prone projects get up. But there are other benefits. Interacting with the broader public via the initial pitch, blogging the projects (a requirement for some of the platforms), and explaining the return at the end of the project. That can be a challenge too – again, from the Nature Neuroscience editorial:
Regardless of the size of the award, instead of convincing one’s peers that a project is worth pursuing, scientists must convince potential investors who may have entirely different perspectives on what makes a scientific question compelling or pressing. Although this may be a refreshing change, crowd sourcing could result in a skew of its own. For example, the public may be more inclined to fund research that is relevant to disease, rather than more basic research. Another issue that may require some time to work out is quality control in the proposals on offer. The peer review process varies widely across organizations, from very rigorous to none at all. One could argue that peer review is at odds with the process of microfinance, as the idea is to let donors choose what they consider valuable. However, it would be wasteful for laypeople to invest in projects that are ill conceived, lack sufficient institutional resources or duplicate previous work.
There’s a risk here. But one of the aspects I like about the whole process is that rather than money going through a particular institution or even through particular projects, it’s generally going to particular researchers, and as this Margaret Pagano opinion piece from the Independent comments:
putting money behind scientists rather than pre-destined projects is far more blue-sky, as brilliant discoveries or inventions are so often serendipitous.
I’m really interested in hearing from anyone who has worked this way, how did it go? It seems like part of a larger move to a more open science, alongside blogging and Twitter, and publishing without the barriers of phenomenally expensive print journals. Plus by diversifying the funding base, it makes science more resilient to political shifts. Which sounds like a win-win.