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Crowd-Funding for Research Dollars: A Cure for Science's Ills?

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Science in crisis

Scientists - and science generally - are in a moment of crisis on multiple fronts. The gap between science and society has grown to a chasm, with disastrous consequences for issue after issue. For example, just last month, Tennessee passed legislation permitting creation "science" into classrooms. On another front, the concern of Americans about global warming has dramatically declined over the past decade, despite the scientific consensus on the clear and present danger caused by climate change.

But science illiteracy in the general public isn't the only crisis in science. 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 (see here and here for details). The situation in many other nations is no better. In Spain, for example, science spending by the central government has fallen by 20% since 2009. Even worse, research funding from traditional sources will likely be even harder to come by in the years to come due to ongoing economic instability around the world.

The solution

The public disengagement with science and the difficulty of funding research are very different problems. Unexpectedly though, there is a new solution that might just answer both problems: science crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is a relatively new internet-based method of fundraising. With crowdfunding, individuals post projects that need funding on websites, like RocketHub and Kickstarter, and then solicit contributions for those projects from the general public. Crowdfunding has grown explosively over the past few years as a source of funding in many fields (like arts and technology), with $1.5 billion raised by this method in 2011 alone. The arts-based Kickstarter expects to disburse $150 million this year, more than the National Endowment for the Arts. In the sciences, the British charity Cancer Research UK regularly funds specific cancer-related research projects to the tune of fifty thousand pounds and above.

With the exception of Cancer Research UK, science has been essentially untouched by crowdfunding until recently. However, given the crowdfunding amounts that have been raised elsewhere, the potential of generating significant amounts of research cash by this method is obvious. It might seem less obvious how science crowdfunding could help close the yawning gap between science and society. To understand the connection, it is important to note that the culture of science itself shares a lot of the blame for the public's science illiteracy.

It is not news that the culture of science generally frowns upon researchers engaging in science outreach with the wider world (though a recent paper in the journal PLoS ONE lays out the case in depressing detail). Even when science outreach does occur, the focus is often not on the public, but instead on decision-makers - the elite few who most directly move the levers of power.

Why is crowdfunding good news for connecting science and society?

Science crowdfunding changes the equation by adding a powerful new incentive for scientists to engage the public with science: the potential for raising money for research directly from the public. What makes crowdfunding such a powerful potential lever to connect science and society is that the amount of money that can be raised in this way is directly proportional to the size of the audience that has been built. As an example, if we look at the six projects on Kickstarter that each have raised over a million dollars this year, all but one tapped into huge networks of people that the project creators had been building for years. I am the co-organizer of a science crowdfunding effort called the #SciFund Challenge and the results from our own projects show the same thing: money raised depends on the audience that has been built.

So, how do scientists go about building an audience interested in their research? Where does the crowd in crowdfunding come from? A great model lies no further than your radio: your local NPR station. Most of the time, NPR member stations are just pushing out fantastic programming (Fresh Air, I am looking at you). Every so often though, the stations reach out to you to ask for cash to keep the programming rolling. Whether or not you give money though, they still want you listening to the programming.

A very similar model could work well for science crowdfunding. On a regular basis, a scientist would be reaching out with her science message to broader audiences (via public talks, blog posts, and so on). The message of the scientist would not be focussed on money, but rather on compelling stories in science (the scientist’s own research, interesting developments in the scientist’s field, etc.). By regularly reaching out with her science, the researcher would over time build credibility with a growing audience. And every so often, if the scientist reached out to that audience to request funds to keep the research rolling, that audience would respond. How much money could a scientist actually raise for her research this way? The example of Cancer Research UK shows that, if the audience is large, a large amount can be raised.

One way to think of the relationship between audience and crowdfunding potential is a version of the Thousand True Fans Model. Musicians, videomakers, and other artists have used this model for a few years now to figure out how to make a living from their art. The idea behind the model is that only the most committed fraction of your audience will provide the majority of the dollars to keep the art going. Consequently, the goal of the artist is to cater to that fraction and to grow that fraction over time. For science, the Thousand True Fans Model goes a bit differently, because those audience members who aren’t contributing dollars are still incredibly valuable. All members of a researcher’s audience (contributing or not) are connected to science and those individual connections are essential for closing the gap between science and society.

What would this world look like if every scientist touched a thousand people each year with their science message? How would science-related policy decisions be different if every citizen had a scientist that they personally knew? One thing is for sure: a world with closer connections between scientists and the public would be a better world. And crowdfunding might just help to get us there.

As I mentioned earlier, I am one of the co-organizers of the #SciFund Challenge, a volunteer-run science crowdfunding organization. We train scientists how to run crowdfunding projects, provide community, and also provide some publicity once projects launch. We currently have 75 amazing science crowdfunding projects that are running for the month of May. You can find the projects listed by category at scifundchallenge.org or directly at scifund.rockethub.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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