What do Zach Braff, Oculus Rift and potato salad have in common?
They were all projects funded through the crowd funding site Kick starter. Crowd funding is sort of like Dragons Den, but instead of having five extremely rich business entrepreneurs investing their hard earned cash, the general public has the opportunity to support ideas that capture their fancy. There have been a lot of success stories. One of the most supported ideas at Kick starter; the Oculus Rift, a virtual simulation headset, raised over $2million. Moreover, it has been developed, tested and will soon be available for sale in the UK.
Enterprising individuals have also capitalized on this opportunity and used crowd funding to pay for education costs and to even purchase properties. So what’s the next step? How about crowd funding scientific research?
In the UK, there are seven research councils, each focused on different areas.
Each council is governed independently and is responsible for determining how public money is spent on research. In 2011, £3 billion was spent funding scientific research. That seems like a healthy budget, but unfortunately, research is a cutthroat business. There just isn’t enough money to go around funding every single piece of research. Impact is the new buzzword in research circles. Research councils are looking at each proposal thoroughly to determine why the research needs to be done and what benefits it has to society. If research has been deemed low impact, it’s unlikely to gain funding. So, if you’ve always yearned to investigate the diet, health and movement patterns of striped Bass, you’re just out of luck.
Scientific crowd funding sites such as Petridish.org and Expertiment.com have been set up to deal with the shortfall of funding. Scientists are able to place their investigations on the site to spread awareness about their research and make science more accessible to the general public. The ultimate aim is to gain enough donations from the public to reach their funding goal. Most crowd funding sites work on an all or nothing basis. Either it’s all funded or it isn’t. Already, there have been a number of projects funded this way - from designing a bionic eye, to investigating lunar dust and even developing the world’s most perfect choc chip cookie.
So what are the advantages of using crowd funding? The most obvious benefit to crowd funding is that high risk or controversial investigations that have been declined or ineligible for government grants can be funded through alternative means. Research council regulations must be strict in order to gain the best research for the money invested. However, this rigidity prevents scientific creativity and innovation. Crowd funding regulations are more lenient and encourage creative projects. This ensures great variation in the types of projects submitted. Qualified personnel screen each project to ensure that a verified researcher submits the project; the project has a plausible hypothesis and realistic objectives. This is assurance to anyone pledging money that the quality of research undertaken will be high.
Crowd funding certainly has its advantages, however, these relaxed regulations also prove to be a disadvantage. Though larger, more established crowd funding sites employ stringent screening of projects to ensure high quality research, not all sites will adhere to such restrictions. There are no regulations that prevent bad projects from being advertised. The general public is especially vulnerable to being taken advantage of if they lack the scientific knowledge to differentiate between good and bad science.
Despite that, it seems that researchers are getting a good deal out of all this. But what rewards do donators get? Well, there is the satisfaction of knowing that the money you pledge is helping to make a difference and is used to further scientific knowledge. It may be noble thought but it’s not likely to generate many donations. Researchers are trying to sweeten the deal by offering incentives to people who pledge money. Experiment.com entice donations by having tax-deductible projects and open access projects that promise to publish all results for free. Petridish.org has a whole section devoted to rewards donators can get - t-shirts, hats and even souvenirs from the field. Larger donations can get acknowledgments, personal talks and even naming rights.
Crowd funding is certainly still in its infancy. It relies very heavily on co-operation and trust. So far, this has worked marvelously without problems. The test will be to see how long this can be maintained. Scientific Research is becoming more and more expensive and can only fund so many projects. Budget cuts means that it is becoming more competitive to obtain grants and funding for projects. Crowd funding is filling the deficit to ensure good and promising research is being conducted.