Gearing up for the SciFund Challenge

Is crowdfunding a viable approach for basic science research? First of all, scientific research is an expensive and risky proposition. Making new discoveries means doing something that has not been done before, and doing anything for the first time is hard and prone to mistakes. It may take many years of hard work just to get the experiment right, just to see if the data it produces supports or refutes a hypothesis!

For much of history, support for scientific research has come from the wealthy and powerful. State sponsorship of scientific research is now the norm, but it was not always the case. Here in America, federal funding for scientific research is channeled through various agencies, such as the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Energy (DoE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Program managers at each of the agencies put out solicitations for research in their portfolios, or areas or responsibility, and make decisions (with external reviewer input) on funding. Researchers then write grant proposals, and hire technicians (or graduate students) to help with the day-to-day work in the lab (or field). While the present system is decidedly more meritocratic, the funding decision ultimately comes down to a small select group of individuals entrusted with public funds.

The creation of the Internet and the World Wide Web has been a disruptive force, shaking up countless industries and changing the way business is done around the world. Could it do the same for science?

One of the critiques of the existing system is that it promotes incremental rather than breakthrough research. Academia, with its “publish-or-perish” pressure for tenure-track faculty, must share as much of the blame as risk-adverse program managers. To get tenure, one must publish many papers in high impact-factor journals so that one’s works will be highly cited. In order to publish many papers, much funding is needed. To get the funding, one must pay close attention to hot topic trends in one’s discipline and track likely solicitation topics closely.

What happens to an idea which does not fall neatly into any program manager’s portfolio? To be fair, most federal agencies will accept unsolicited research proposals. However, the program managers are under no obligation to fund any of them. Since it is so expensive to do good research, many promising ideas have probably languished for lack of resources. This is where crowdfunding enters the picture!

By allowing the public to interact directly with the scientists, the crowdfunding model has two disintermediating effects. Firstly, the money takes a less circuitous route, and can be used more efficiently. Secondly, the scientific findings may be shared directly with a community which cares enough about the research to fund it in the first place, which might help the public understand science in a new light.

What an exciting experiment to be a part of!

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