The concept of crowdfunding has been around for several years now, going through highs and lows. From the early days when we only had IndieGoGo and Kickstarter as platforms to fund creative projects, a remarkable portfolio of different public-benefit corporations has been established over the years.
These days, crowdfunding is still highly popular in arts and community projects – Patreon, for instance, is another example of a very successful launch, and currently my favourite, mainly to support musicians, writers and vloggers. The most highly funded projects are typically new technology, games or designs. Medical research has traditionally been a less common theme in these initiatives.
Several reasons might explain the lack of scientific projects in the mainstream crowdfunding scene. For one, the immense costs associated with research, which are not least owed to the specialised equipment and facilities required. Another problem might be that science is mostly a niche interest and confined to dedicated interest groups – neither are scientists exposed to these types of funding possibilities, nor does the public have an easy time finding projects that are worthy of their support (or, lets face it, interesting – who is really going to invest their hard-earnt pounds into the latest membrane trafficking pathway?). The possibility of scams or plainly unfeasible projects undertaken by unqualified researchers are other obstacles that should be considered.
Which platforms exist?
Still, more than four years ago, the crowdfunding hype had also reached the sciences and several primarily research-oriented platforms started to appear on the web, such as Petridish, Scifundchallenge, Walacea, and experiment.com.
But while doing my research on currently available platforms, it also became quickly obvious that many of the crowdfunding portals initiated back then do not seem to exist anymore. Petridish has vanished from the internet, as has Walacea, which became infamous because it funded a brain imaging study on the effects of LSD.
In addition, a number of more broadly themed fundraisers also exist that do not specifically focus on science but offer research categories devoted to scientists who want to raise money for their work. Among them are Rockethub, FundRazr, Razoo, and also the ever-popular IndieGoGo.
Does it work? What is funded?
Among this wealth of choice, the challenge remains to identify the platform with the most suitable audience. In many cases it is hard to predict which websites are most successful in attracting visitors interested in research support. A good indicator is the performance of previous science projects. And indeed many of the platforms aren’t short on success stories, which often also hit the news.
Although overall funding achievements often remain within hundreds to thousands of dollars, and thus would not be enough to produce data for large-scale studies, the money can often be helpful in other ways:
- Extend existing studies: A master’s student in New Hampshire raised money that enabled her to expand her study on cheetah conservation, essentially doubling her sample size.
- Purchase software or additional equipment scientist otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford – as the Darie Research Group at Clarkson University in New York did.
- Fund small-scale experiments to answer concise questions: e.g. a project at experiment.com sequenced the genome of a cat and posted the genomic data analysis on the website. And scientists at CrowdScience screened a range of bee-friendly plants from UK garden centers to identify which ones are truly safe. But also larger scale projects were realised, such as the first publicly accessible orbital space telescope or a specialist pressurised flight suit.
And the results? SciFund Challenge has a list of papers published with data from the funded projects. They also claim they have allowed nearly 200 researchers to raise an average of $2,000 (£1,272) for 159 different projects.
Is it safe?
Especially when looking at some of the more controversial projects, a number of questions arise. Are experimental setups feasible and can we trust the quality of the data? Can the proposed question actually be answered with results from the suggested experiments? How experienced and capable is the research team behind the study? Do they have the appropriate equipment? Will we see any data when the project is completed? And most of all: is the research ethical?
Many researchers have raised concerns about the possibility that crowdfunding might enable scientists to perform unethical or unfeasible experiments that would otherwise not be funded by regulated public or governmental sources. Some labs also might fail to gain financial backing based on quality concerns. The more scientifically oriented platforms, such as experiment.com, try to get around this problem by reviewing every single submission. However, their review criteria and the identity/expertise of the peer reviewers are not always clear on the website, making this a rather vague statement.
Some of the listed projects also sound more alarming than promising: Researchers at IndieGoGo, for example, raise money to complete pre-clinical tests for a multi-phase trial on undefined neural stem cells in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. Defying Dementia, a crowdfunding website run by a research institute, is planning a clinical trial on a proposed Alzheimer’s drug that their labs developed. Both of these are large-scale projects, with funding goals of several hundreds of thousands dollars. In both cases the labs were not able to secure the necessary federal or private funding to go ahead – a striking lack of sound scientific description on both websites might be one indication why. Considering this, it might probably a good idea to focus any efforts in science philanthropy on smaller projects, also because they are typically more likely to succeed.
For science crowdfunding to be successful in the long run it will be necessary that all ideas undergo independent and robust scrutiny before they can request funding. In the days of major cuts in government R&D spending and increased pressure on health services, charities, philanthropic investments and science foundations crowdfunding might be an option to offer some relief. It won’t replace the conventional means of funding, but it might help realise smaller studies that would otherwise fall through the cracks.