The Madness of Crowds: Microphilanthropy has its Rewards

March 2, 2013 | by Krist Azizian

Krist T. Azizian

Those venturing forth to pursue independent careers as scientists are continually faced with the daunting challenge of securing funding for their ideas. Unfortunately, the competition for funding from agencies that dole out large sums of money is stiff and budgets are prone to slashing as a consequence of political outcomes.

An argument can be made for a new approach, fueled by the Internet, which helps circumvent some of the traditional avenues and constraints presented by large funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

A recent article in The Economist describes the advent of crowd funding, a method by which scientists look to the general public to help fund their research usually through dedicated sites including Rockethub and Petridish. Donors can peruse these sites and grant small sums of money to fund projects of interest in order to meet the target sums set by the researchers. Falling short of these sums by not collecting enough pledges means the project will not be funded, which happens often.

However, scientists can reap the benefits of funding without the traditional hassles if there is enough interest and the target sum is met. It comes as no surprise that successfully funded scientists stipulate ways to keep themselves accountable, usually by freely sharing the data they generate and posting regular progress reports.

I checked up on the progress of one scientist mentioned in the article that proposed a $25,000 target to fund research investigating the effect of amphetamines as mental health drugs on the brain. On Nov. 21, he had raised about 70 percent of his target with three days left until the deadline. The project page is worth reading to understand how these proposals are fashioned.

The proposal clearly explains what the problem being addressed entails and justifies the need for raising money through crowd funding. The scientist then explains how the research will address the problem, including the method of experimentation.

The proposal also stresses an open, interactive model through which donors can access data uploaded to figshare, read blogs on the lab’s website describing research progress and rest assured that the findings will be published in an open access journal.

Finally, there is an explanation of how the money will be budgeted, and rewards may be offered as incentives for donors. A donation of $25 gets you a 3D-printed molecule of methamphetamine. Donate $1,000 and you get access to lab meetings and a chance at authorship (contingent upon contributing substantive ideas to the project).

The process of crowd funding is appealing because a scientist can fund a reasonable idea at its inception without the burden of compiling sometimes prohibitive preliminary data as proof-of-concept for a project of much grander scale. This allows a step-wise approach because the success of one small project leads to another until a formidable problem has been solved. Crowd funding small projects also lessens the anxiety associated with keeping a massive grant by continually demonstrating success, which grantees hesitate to admit is unrealistic. Crowd funding might also decrease competition because it is unlikely that a small, specific project proposed by one group would overlap fully with one proposed by another group.

Nevertheless, securing grants through crowd funding may not overcome some of the traditional barriers associated with how modern science is practiced. For example, it remains to be seen if a scientist can enter academia without grants via traditional routes. For now, crowd funding might only serve to supplement traditional grants. Also, the transparent nature of data sharing that crowd funding promises might back-fire by rendering redundant work that is readily scooped by competing, secretive groups. And, although collaboration is key to producing good ideas, too much collaboration and input and too many promises might only serve to hinder progress.

In any case, it is becoming increasingly clear that crowd funding offers distinct advantages as a means to revolutionize the way scientific research is funded.

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