Image: Crowdfunding, US Securities and Exchange Commission (no, really), CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Sometimes I hold an opinion that I’m almost certain has to be wrong, but I can’t figure out why. This is one of those times. I need you to help me.
I’ve been watching the trend to crowdfunded science, and it bothers me. I completely understand why it happens, and why it’s become much more common. The science funding environment continues to be difficult – indeed, in many places it seems to be getting steadily more difficult, especially for early-career scientists and those doing the most basic/curiosity-driven science. At the same time, the rise of web-based crowdfunding platforms* has made it relatively easy to reach potential donors (at least in principle, and more about that below). For any given researcher at any given time, surely the science is better with access to crowdsourced support than it would be without. And several colleagues I like and respect have crowdsourced part of their work. So why am I so uncomfortable with the model?
I can think of at least four reasons crowdfunding science bothers me. As the title of this post betrays, I find each unconvincing – on grounds I supply in italics. Or, more accurately, I feel like I should find each unconvincing.
(1) I often see crowdfunding campaigns for grad-student research, and I think funding grad-student research is the supervisor’s job. My research pockets aren’t particularly deep, but I don’t think I’ve ever suggested a grad student take on research that wasn’t funded. True, sometimes I’ve suggested that the student apply for funding to a granting agency – but never to fund core research that would otherwise go unfunded. (Instead, I’ve suggested grant applications when someone comes up with ideas for additional work beyond the minimum needed to make up a thesis. I’ve also suggested it because if successful, it could build their CV while freeing lab funding for other science; but in this case, the lab funding is always the backup.)
Here’s why this reason seems unconvincing. I think it’s a strong objection to crowdfunding all of a grad student’s research. But I realize that much (maybe most?) graduate crowdfunding fits into that “additional work beyond the minimum” category, and I’m still uneasy with it. Apparently, I’m OK with telling a grad student “let’s see if Agency X will fund that”, but I’m not OK with telling a grad student “let’s see if a bunch of people on the internet will fund that”. Weird.
(2) Crowdfunding platforms make it easy in principle to reach the general public, but I wonder how often campaigns reach far outside the world of science. I see anecdotal evidence that scientists are very often contributing to the crowdfunding campaigns of other scientists – which is no surprise, since our social networks are (often) heavily biased towards people with whom we share interests, careers, and so on. Here’s the thing: if we all wind up crowdfunding each other’s research, that’s really no different than us all paying for our research out of our own pockets. I do that on occasion (I suspect most of us do), but it’s no way for society as a whole to support the public good of scientific knowledge.
Here’s why this reason seems unconvincing. First, I have only anecdotes, not data, on who funds science crowdfunding campaigns. But even if my worry is well-founded: who am I to tell other scientists what to spend their money on? If people pay for their own science, in effect taking voluntary pay cuts to replace funding agencies in support of science, isn’t that up to them? I support several science- and conservation-minded charities; how is that different?
(3) The more successful we are at crowdfunding, then governments can dodge their responsibility to fund science. Actually, that last sentence is misleading in an important way: “governments” aren’t external bodies for which we should be using a 3rd-person pronoun (“their responsibilities”). Governments are just us: government is what we invented so we can collectively work for common goods – like the production of new knowledge. So if crowdfunding is successful, then we can dodge our responsibility to collectively fund science. More precisely, those of who are directly interested might still be funding science, but we’re doing it individually, not collectively. It’s collective funding that governments excel at, for instance in the provision of national defence, health care, or environmental regulations even to those who individually wouldn’t volunteer to pay for them. This collective funding is a way around the tragedy of the commons.
Here’s why this reason seems unconvincing. I don’t worry about NGOs funding science, or about people who make bequests to science or museums or conservation organizations. Furthermore, at any set level of public funding, surely some extra resources through crowdfunding can only be good? And what, exactly, makes me think that governments need a crowdfunding excuse to cut science funding?
(4) When research is crowdfunded, then prioritization of research dollars may start to work on flashiness and on appeal to non-experts, rather than on peer review of grant applications. Surely we can all think of projects that would be easily crowdfunded but shouldn’t happen**, and also of projects that could never be crowdfunded but that absolutely should happen.
Here’s why this reason seems unconvincing. It seems to directly contradict my reason 2. If we’re all funding each other’s projects, then that is peer review. If we’re banking on flashiness and non-expert appeal, then clearly we’re not just funding each other. So I can hold either objection (2) or (4), but not both at once. To boot: this seems to assume that there are some kinds of worthy science whose value just can’t be explained to non-scientists. In turn, that seems to imply either that we aren’t smart enough to do SciComm well, or that non-experts just can’t understand science priorities. Neither implication is one I’m comfortable making.
I’ve done my best to argue with myself here, but I’m afraid it isn’t working. Crowdfunding science still makes me uncomfortable. It’s possibly just that I’m an old-geezer stick-in-the-mud on this issue (get off my lawn!). But it’s also possible that I haven’t mustered the right pro-crowdfunding arguments or made them well enough. That’s where you come in – please use the Replies to tell me (politely and constructively, of course) what I’m missing.
© Stephen Heard October 11, 2017
*^The for-profit nature of many crowdfunding platforms is rarely remarked upon. For some reason we’ve all decided to be scandalized by for-profit publishing (even when it’s open-access), but we express no objection to for-profit fundraising. I don’t understand this.
**^Just as an example, I’m pretty sure I could crowdfund a project in which I proposed to gather data refuting human influence on climate change. Of course there’s zero chance of my coming to that conclusion by applying appropriate scientific inference; but there are a lot of people in the world who would be happy to contribute while I turned a blind eye to ethics and faked my way to the conclusion they want. Have I drawn a deliberately way-out-there-exaggerated-that-would-never-really-happen caricature of the problem I have in mind? I sure hope so.