Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Grassroot funding for science: A good idea?

Yes, I do give money to homeless people in the street. And, yes, I do on occasion donate to charity. Yet I am divided about the benefits of recent crowdfunding services that promise to help researchers to directly raise public money. Some of these services that collect money are dedicated to specific research areas, others are broadly defined, and most are US-based. Here is a selection:

The Eureka Fund is a U.S. 501(c)3 non-profit organization that collects money for energy and environment research. Proposals are reviewed by a scientific advisory board. If you look at the list of projects and the donations received, the success is not exactly stellar, even though Eureka Fund was featured in the NYT in April this year.

Fund Science is another US based micro-funding organization. According to the brochure, they have applied for 501(c)3 status. They are dedicated to help funding young researchers and pilot projects who have difficulties obtaining funding in other ways. In the first round however, they invite proposals only for "doctoral students pursuing hypotheses related to the pathogenesis or modeling of diseases including Crohns and Familial Mediterranean Fever."

A broadly imagined attempt is, but the website is mostly filled by placeholders instead of content and nothing seems to be happening there. This is funny since Joanna Scott from Nature Network reported last year that the initiative was on its way. Maybe something went wrong there. The Facebook site and Twitter feed are equally deserted.

Then there is the SciFund Callenge, funded by two biologists in California. This fundraising agency runs through RocketHub, a crowdfunding organization based in New York. Maybe because they didn't attempt to reinvent the wheel of crowdfunding, their project list looks decent.

One last example: OpenGenius, which has been celebrated in the press, has an optimistic vision in which scientists and funding agencies propose projects for public funding and the projects are peer reviewed by a "global and highly motivated community." This project is noteworthy because it seems to be not US-based. The website suffers from a certain lack of actual information, but amounts of money are named in EUR and the partners are all Italian.

Needless to say, I think it is a terrific idea to make use of a simple interface that enables researchers to raise some additional money, may that be to replace the ancient lab fridge or to organize a conference. Much like giving some Euros to the homeless guy in the street, money serves to make life a little easier and the day a little brighter.

But beyond little extras, funding research by appealing to the public is not a good trend. It doesn't solve any systemic problem, much like dropping some Euros into a hat doesn't get homeless people off the street. The primary problem with scientific funding today is a lack of risk-taking and commitment: The ideal research project doesn't take more than 3 years to complete and you know the outcome before you've even started. If one would listen to the general public what projects are worth funding it would just reinforce the problems: Most people want to see immediate and tangible outcomes of their investments. That this doesn't work for basic research is exactly why so much of it is tax funded.

It adds to this that the crowdfunding approach puts at advantage research that can be easily decorated with pictures and produced in a video. If your project is about finding the best milk substitute for orphaned kittens it will score better than, say, the kappa-deformation of the Poincare Hopf algebra on discrete non-metric spaces in arbitrary dimensions. That might seem like an extreme example, but it isn't hard to predict that most of mammalian biology and medicine would produce better videos and more catchy pitches than mathematics or theoretical physics. And alien biology of course... Click to read whole comic.

Via Bad Astronomy. I didn't find it particularly funny. It's more in the category sad but true.

Giving to charity is much more common in North America than it is in Europe. An oversimplified summary is that Europeans pay more taxes and believe in representative democracy while Americans like the idea to distribute the money themselves and mistrust their electees. So it isn't much of a surprise most of the examples above are US based.

There is no generally right or wrong way to invest in non-profit organizations; it depends on the aim. Yes, donors chose. But the big question is how well they chose to invest their money and if not channeling of investment through expert committees puts money to use better. There are some cases where crowds are wise and chose wisely. And while the right circumstances for crowds to make wise decisions are still a subject of research, it seems to be clear that one needs a well-posed and concrete question to begin with. In addition, one person's decision shouldn't be affected by the choices others have made. Otherwise the rich will just get richer. These are conditions not fulfilled when it comes to judging on the promise of a research project.

Without knowing the status of a research field one has no way of telling if an investment is good, and this is not a knowledge one obtains by browsing a video collection. Or look at medicine with its many "orphan diseases" - not diseases of orphans, but all those illnesses you have never heard of because no Hollywood star fell victim to it. Where you invest best should depend on how promising a research proposal is, and that potentially in the course of some centuries. Not on what's currently on TV.

I am not saying the general public is dumb. I am talking about a lack of knowledge here, and a lack of time to obtain that knowledge. Pop sci gets you only so far.

Via Moshe. I did find that one hilarious indeed.

Then there is the problem that slopes may be slippery. I can just see us ending up in a position where scientists are expected to use crowdfunding for their research. And that will not only be an ineffective distribution of money because said crowd is prone to like projects for the wrong reasons, but also because it takes up more of the researchers' precious time for producing a fancy proposal that will appeal to the public. And then somebody still has to do the reviewing.

Summary: Crowdfunding science is a good idea to add additional support to underfunded missions or to enable small projects. It is not a good idea to draw upon the public opinion to fund research projects from scratch. It might appear as if public money is put to good use, but that use is likely to be very inefficient and misdirected and doesn't actually solve any systemic problem. If you must, go occupy Wall Street, vote, and make sure your taxes are put to good use.


  1. Hi Bee,

    You must admit Bee 10,000. from FQXi does come in handy:)

    Would one consider FQXi as Grassroots funding?


  2. There is crowd-funding, and it's called "the alumni". There are such things as the "Class of 1987 Professor of Theoretical Physics". There are fewer shackles on chairs than there are to most government funding. Marketing a particular new research direction to alumni is something for which US universities have specialist teams. It's not just one donor, one chair. Academic input to the process is very carefully managed.

    There is a relatively open list of people who are allowed to nominate for MacArthur grants, precisely to try to minimize committee think. Partially open lists of people who are allowed to nominate.

  3. I don't mind donations to certain projects, and small prizes/funds like you have mentioned. But, the trend is a bit scary...mostly because of the state of scientific literacy of the public. I don't want people who don't believe in evolution or vaccinations to be making these decisions!

  4. Hi Plato,

    One day I'll tell you a story about trying to receive funds from an US institution through a US non-profit organization to a European educational institution and the paperwork it created... "Handy" doesn't exactly describe it.

    At this point I don't know who or what is actually funding FQXi. Either way, it is of course a question of definition, but what I meant with grassroot funding is that the distribution of funds is directly decided upon by the electorate. In contrast to one or the other expert committee or maybe a lottery... In that sense, FQXi grants are not grassroot funding. It wouldn't make a lot of sense to speak of grassroot funding just because the source of money are private people. In that sense, all tax-funding would be grassroot funding. Best,


  5. Hi Alyssa,

    Well, in a democracy the public makes the decisions either way. The question is whether they make them directly, or via representatives that are elected in some way. In some sense the question is do they know what they don't know. Best,


  6. In the current climate, research funds do not only come from governments, but also from industry and private benefactors. In particular, the latter have a long history in science. The existence of these other sources has not eliminated government funding, but it has skewed it to some extent due to matching funds agreements (think of how Perimeter was able to secure so much Canadian government funding for example).

    Whilst I agree that there are dangers in relying too much on crowdfunding, just as there are dangers in relying too much on *any* single source, I don't really see how it is any worse than funding from government, industry or private benefactors. In all cases, there are interests other than the pursuit of the best quality proposals at play. Popular interest is likely to be different from government, industry or private benefactors, so I see it as a useful contributor to diversity of the funding landscape.

    Diversity of funding sources is important because governments have always set their own priorities, which are often different from those of the scientific community. Even if they were perfectly aligned, the interests of the scientific community can also differ from those of individual scientists who may end up doing good work. If I want to work on a particular project, then it is good if I have a choice of places to look for funding and can choose the one that it most closely aligned with my goals. Quite frankly, if I could obtain all the necessary funding for my work on quantum foundations from private sources then I would happily do so because I would not have to pretend that it will have a large short-term payoff.

  7. Hi Matt,

    The actual question isn't so much where the money comes from but who decides where it goes. If you rely on private donations or crowdfunding, it's not scientists who make the decisions. If you rely on a small number of private donors things can become difficult which is what you are alluding to. I don't know if there is even such a thing as the interests of the scientific community vs the interests of single scientists. The question is what mechanism is most likely to channel funding into the most promising research. The present system is far from perfect, but my point is that more reliance on direct public support is likely to make things worse than better. Best,


  8. Decide between a puff of hot air and a cutting torch before there are blueprints. Professional management is the worst discriminator, Einstein to FedEx to Bill Gates to Solyndra. Private funding can do no worse. As for compassionate social charity,

    Two Liberals are walking down the street. They hear faint but terrible, horrible gurgling moans coming from an alley. They walk in to a chilling sight: A man is lying face down in a growing pool of his own blood. His clothing is ripped, his pockets are torn off. He is severely beaten and multiply stabbed. His broken teeth decorate the ground. One Liberal says to the other Liberal, "Whoever did this needs counseling."

  9. As you note, definitely not a good trend in general. The next step would be funding schools, hospitals, the police etc not by taxes but privately (which crowdfunding essentially is). Sounds scary, but it's the norm in some countries.

  10. Hi Bee,

    I personally think research is of greater necessity today than it has ever been before as the seriousness and complexities of the problems we face have it as ever more important. However regardless what I think the current reality is the financial system is broken and as a result austerity is becoming the drum beat of the times and thus it would be hard to believe research funding will not be impacted by this yet rather more likely to suffer greater in respect to other things. Therefore considering the economic climate I think grass roots funding needs to be looked at seriously to being expanded despite it not presenting as the ideal option. That is when everyone is scrambling for the life rafts it would be unwise to be too selective about which one affords the surest saling before boarding.



  11. Provocative post, Bee. Was wondering about how crowdfunding would play out in the UK science culture - posted something on this subject here:


  12. People's propensity to donate to science depends on taxation: "I am taxed and the government funds science, so why should I pay out of my own pocket". People are less likely to pay for stuff that they think the government already does/should do.

    There are two benefits of direct funding of science by citizens:

    1) It could be argued that citizens will want to fund "flashy" and quick-reward science, rather than the laborious/difficult to explain basic research that everything else depends on.

    However, we have to admit that a lot of the "difficult to explain" science is also not that practically useful or intellectually important, and continues to exist primarily because it receives public money. Scientists, like anyone else receiving public money, are likely to blow their own horn when it comes to the significance of their field/research, regardless of its actual significance.

    2) If scientists have to go to the public directly for money, and if the public is aware that they are partly responsible for funding science, then better communication of scientific results will ensue.

    Right now, entire fields of study are completely cut off from society: they get money from the politicians, publish in their journals, completely disconnected from the world at large. It's not a very bad idea to have a concrete incentive for scientists to be better communicators and to be accountable to their donors.


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