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 Sciflies.org, 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.