Four unconvincing reasons not to crowdfund science

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

 Here, by the way, is a recent pro-crowdfunding piece from a lab undertaking its first campaign, and here’s a piece outlining some pros and cons for someone giving it a whirl.


*^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.

 

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16 thoughts on “Four unconvincing reasons not to crowdfund science

  1. Jeremy Fox

    Re: your #2, if I recall Jarrett Byrnes’ data correctly, it’s mostly your family and friends who crowdfund your science. Although yes, insofar as it’s not your family and friends, at least some of it is probably your fellow scientists in many cases (though in those cases are those scientists doing serious “peer review”? Or just kicking some money towards grad students for much the same reason that I annually contribute to the ESA’s grad student travel award fund?)

    Given how little money goes to most science crowdfunding campaigns, how much effort it is to raise that little bit (relative to the money raised), and the extent to which the money raised tends to come from family and friends, I don’t think crowdfunding is ever going to take off as a way of funding individual student research projects.

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    1. Jade

      To add to Jeremy’s point — the fact that family & friends do a lot of the ‘crowd’ funding makes me very uncomfortable, as it’s yet another way that students/ECRs with high socioeconomic status can get ahead of those who come from less privileged backgrounds. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves, this already happens anyway: plenty of students (or students’ families) fund some or all of their graduate education, pay some or all of their fieldwork costs, can afford those unpaid ‘internships’ or ‘research experiences’ that enable them to even get into grad school, etc. But the assumption of ‘oh, we don’t need to come up with traditional money to cover this, you can crowd-fund it’ just makes this problem worse.

      I’m not saying that crowd-funding is uniformly bad, because obviously it’s not. A successfully crowd-funded project that actually reaches the general public seems like a win-win. But I’d love to see some hard data on how crowd-funding interplays with STEM diversity.

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        1. Auriel Fournier

          I had just come into the comments to make this point. So instead of making it, I will just reiterate what was said above, issues of access/diversity in science are what make me the most uncomfortable about crowd funding science.

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  2. Elizabeth Moon

    I’ve seen several kinds of crowd-funding (not all called that) and only one of them has any potential to benefit the diversity issue (including diversity by involving non-scientists’ resources in crowd-funded research. The most troubling, to me, are the “hidden” crowd funding in which a group of people (sometimes organizaed as a think-tank, a foundation, etc.) seek public support for “research” that backs up an anti-science bias. You mentioned climate change–which already has privately funded “research” against the facts. It’s not the only one. There are privately funded (including “industry” funded) research “institutes” claiming that their output is real science in a wide variety of fields, all seeking to convince those in power to take their side. Right now it seems to be working in the US, which also has privately funded media to trumpet their messages. There is no benefit to the knowledge base in this kind of biased, politically motivated, private funding.

    As others have already pointed out, crowd-funding that is supported mostly by family and friends–if it’s aiming at anything but a very small outcome (a few hundred US dollars)–puts low-income students at the same disadvantage they already face: their family and friends don’t have the resources to contribute more. There’s a tiny glimmer of light in this one, in that with social media *some* scientists are now gaining attention (for entertainment if nothing else) outside their immediate circle of colleagues and family. Twitter, more than Facebook, enables that possibility. Those who post/comment on related issues of the day, and whose posts otherwise are interesting (visually as well) can acquire a following outside their research field. Those people can build that network of followers into what amounts to a fan-group (think of the explosion of interest in Chris Hadley’s tweets from space, the first time I noticed this phenomenon), and as several of my writer friends have proved, a fan group *can* crowd-fund a project (even if the writer is not wealthy.)

    Building fan groups for scientists may smack of excessive ego-boosting…but it needn’t be. It is, however, an approach that takes time (so a time-sensitive project needs to be crowd-funded by someone who already has a “platform.” And it’s never certain. Those with discretionary income face competing requests for funding, and a natural disaster may soak up money that–before the earthquake/tsunami/hurricane/tornado–might have gone to one or more small-science crowdfunding projects. Big media always covers the big disasters. It’s most effectively done by scientists who are naturally sociable, entertaining, and skilled at outreach…those what you can say in 140 characters is tiny, it must still be accurate and interesting to those not specialists. This limits its use in crowdfunding to those with the skills and personality–which do exist across the usual diversity borders–but leaves out those who lack the skills. (But more pretty/interesting pictures still help. Anne Hilborn’s cheetahs and Jason Ward’s bird images and quizzes, for instance.

    A disadvantage not mentioned is that since crowd-funding falls into the “privately funded” category, it’s subject to the same risks…is it someone’s private (and unscientific) enthusiasm being pushed? Is it “good science?” It can be (the March of Dimes campaign to support development of a polio vaccine was early crowd-funding) when the aim is public benefit and the concept falls within “good science” boundaries. But it could be (and could easily be accused of being) no better than the “research” supporting anti-vaccine views, anti-evolution views, and other eruptions of anti-science. In fact you could undoubtedly get more money faster for some crackpot “research” than for the messy and frustrating process of actual research. “Fan groups” for these topics already exist. This could change, if more perceived benefits to non-scientists arose from private research (the evidence available to the non-scientist is thin on the ground…Salk’s polio vaccine and, um…what? I know of more, but then I graze on the verge of science.) Also, as with government funding, the knowledge of what kinds of things are likely to be funded naturally leads researches into fields where they’re likely to be able to eat something other then peanut butter from the jar and sleep somewhere other than in the lab. Would this lead to better science? Worse science? Maybe.

    I know of one young scientist (but with additional resources) who successfully crowd-funded acquisition of a piece of equipment for her research, but don’t know how large the donation pool was–and the piece of equipment, though a big slice out of her income, would not count as a huge expense in a grant. Personally I want my government (unlikely as it seems at the moment) to return to solid commitment to supporting sound science. I think that’s the right way to do science. Over the past century and a half, really good science has been done (and maintained) by government supported science (sometimes too influenced by politics, but usually coming back to the real thing.) I used their output often as a student and as a citizen as well. So that’s the model I think is good, and privately supported science–though it can be good science–isn’t always. (OK, no part of anything as big as “science” is “good always.” So that’s not the real problem…hmmm….OK–the *popularity* of science support rests on a population increasingly separate from science itself, and thus easily (IMO) lured into comforting/reinforcing notions that are just not true. Better, maybe.)

    I think crowd-funding some projects is justifiable, just as was the March of Dimes appeal to the public, in part because it is more transparent than other forms of private funding. But it should not be the norm for all science.

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  3. Jeremy Fox

    “When research is crowdfunded, then prioritization of research dollars may start to work on flashiness and on appeal to non-experts,”

    Or just on perceived direct application to problems lots of people already care about. Think of how much money medical research collects in donations. Or closer to home in ecology, how much donation money goes to conservation causes. As opposed to how much goes to basic research lacking any very direct application.

    If you think basic researchers bullshit about the direct applied relevance of their work now (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/ecological-forecasting-why-im-a-hypocrite-and-you-may-be-one-too/; https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/elevator-pitches-and-basic-vs-applied-research/), imagine what they’d do in a world in which crowdfunding was a significant source of funds.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, good point. I’ve been known to, um, “marshall all my creative powers” when writing that section of a grant.

      Come on, someone speak up *in favour* of crowdfunding, please! We can’t all be joy-killing stick-in-the-mud curmudgeons, can we? 🙂

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      1. Jeremy Fox

        “Come on, someone speak up *in favour* of crowdfunding, please! ”

        Sorry, Jarrett Byrnes is busy commenting on my post on causal inference today. Apparently it’s “troll Jarrett Byrnes day” in the ecology blogosphere. 🙂

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      2. Elizabeth Moon

        I am in favor of limited crowd-funding, and I do think it will become more and more possible to expand the support for specific projects that back up already popular causes…although it may not be by open crowdfunding, but through existing groups, and will probably lean toward funding the practical applicationst, rather than basic science (necessary to get to the point where a practical application can be approached.) I don’t think it will ever be the main source of funding for all science, nor should it be.

        I also see it as a byproduct of science outreach to the public–both increasing public interest in science, and showing the public how science is really done (which can increase public trust in projects people might commit to. If scientists like you continue to write accessible, interesting blogs, post interesting pictures on Twitter, take the time (and I know it takes time from both teaching and research) to make both topics and the structure and nature of science accessible, and more of the public becomes at least friendly to science (rather than scared, horrified, or defensive about it) then crowdfunding should enable the public to fund projects that are not in line with a particular government’s preferences, provide specific pieces of equipment for a project, etc.

        So count me as part joy-killing sick-in-the-mud curmudgeon and part “Heck yes, we can do this thing without a government grant” enthusiast. (In my 20s I advocated for public involvement in developing and funding space travel…too early, and not efficiently, but somewhere in my files is the verse I wrote about it. The other papers are all vanished in various moves and cleanings out.)

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        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          Elizabeth, thanks for the comments. You make a good point about engagement. If crowdfunding brings with it more public engagement with science – if people get more interested in things they are (literally) invested in – then that has to be a good thing. Great point!

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  4. Timothée Poisot

    Crowdfunding might give a lot of support to shiny / flashy / charismatic topics and organisms (hey, just like how regular funding works!).
    I like crowdfunding because it’s a way to tell people “I like your science and I’m ready to pay for it”. I mostly contribute to projects led by people I appreciate and trust, and this is a more important factor to me than the project itself (hey, just like how peer review works!).
    But more seriously – I like how it can help start small projects, that fall in the weird spot between “too big to do with no dedicated resources” and “too big to do without a grant”. What I’m more concerned about is the potential to fund crooks and pseudo-science, but this is not a problem in ecology (at least until we start crowd-funding theoretical ecology).

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I’m now trying to imagine conducting a crowdfunding campaign for some theoretical ecology. Three funding reward levels! Top donors get screenshots of the error messages when I first run my simulation code! Lower-level donors get that too, but they have to listen to an accompanying .wav file of me cursing…

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  5. Weekademia

    I’ve recently (and successfully) given this a go using the all or nothing experiment.com platform. In the UK we often take masters students on unfunded projects that typically spin off bigger funded projects for a pittance in bench fees. I wanted to just cover some additional consumable costs in doing so. Surprisingly for me a lot of our backers came from the experiment.com community itself with several people seemingly backing many projects on there at a given time (without having their own campaign). Crowdfunding does force you to be more upfront with your ideas from the very beginning and it certainly helped me better connect, locally at least, with patient communities. The money I raised is a very tiny amount in the grand scheme of things, and I never expect crowdfunding to replace traditional funding but it can be useful to bridge some funding gaps.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks! It’s encouraging to hear of some success, even if at a smallish scale. Do you have a feeling for whether the members of “the experiment.com” community were scientists or members of the general public? Or would you see that kind of data?

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