Suppose you are a chemist wanting to establish a standardized recipe for the best-tasting chocolate chip cookie. You know this is legitimate research with numerous applications (flashback to Monica and Phoebe looking for the latter’s grandma’s cookie recipe), but have no clue who would fund this. You write a lengthy grant application—the traditional way of getting research funded in academia. A grant’s gestation period can be years, depending on the amount, funding agency, your reputation and several other unobservables. You are eventually unsuccessful in procuring funds through this route and start talking to your lab-mates and colleagues about this predicament. They like your idea and decide to pitch in a small amount each. Word-of-mouth spreads your cookie idea to more and more people, and not only are your colleagues putting in money, but also your foodie friends, who have a vested gastronomic interest in your research coming to fruition.
This is a real example of unconventional research that was successfully crowdfunded. The scientific community has recently adopted this model of fund-raising, typically applied to raising money for profit-making ventures, artistic contributions and the like. To know more about why an alternative model of fund-raising is catching young researchers’ attention, it is important to know what the conventional model is.
Typically, a researcher works in a public or private institution that has committed itself to academic research. Therefore, such researchers become eligible (via the provisions of their institutions) to apply to funding agencies that may be national, international or private (and some overlap of these). Once the researcher has identified a grant they are eligible for—a painstaking process in itself, given the restrictions placed by many funding agencies with respect to the domain, education requirements, nationality and even the gender composition of the research team—they must complete application formalities.
Among other things, these include a concept note of the proposed research or a full-blown research proposal, and a detailed budget of how funds will be utilized. After submitting the grant application, the researcher must wait. And wait some more. Until a decision is made, which may be communicated to them anywhere between six months and a year after submitting the initial application. Thereafter, if the grant has further stages, there may be an interview, or another round of proposals back and forth, and this goes on for a while until the researcher finally procures funding. While not all grants follow this exact process, some variation of the proposal-budget-external-review procedure certainly exists.
In this environment, crowdfunding seems like a glimmer of hope for the early-career researcher, given that the average age of principal investigators receiving grants from the top agencies in the US was 48 years in 2007. This trend doesn’t seem to be unique to the US or even to federal agencies funding research. Undoubtedly, academics must prove their mettle before being awarded grants, but receiving a PhD in a super-specialized field is supposed to set researchers on the path of grant-raising and independent scholarly work. Then, why the lag in receiving funding if the average age of a new PhD is just 31.6 years in the US?
Therefore, younger academics, as well as those with ideas that are unlikely to receive funding through the aforementioned route, are considering fund-raising via alternative platforms. In crowdfunding, “All or Nothing” and “Keep it All” are two basic models that are perhaps applicable to academic research as well. In the former, a project (or research study in this case) is taken up only if the minimum monetary goal set by the fund-raiser is met; else, no money is collected. In the latter, the fund-raiser keeps what they get, regardless of whether the goal is met. Applying these models, or slight variations thereof, several crowdfunding sites for academic researchers have sprouted in the past few years, such as experiment.com.
Despite their allure, using conventional and crowdfunding routes of grant-raising as substitutes instead of complements may not be the most optimal strategy for a researcher. Each mode of raising funds has its benefits and limitations, which academics can be cognizant of before using either. Crowdfunding research makes quality control difficult and complex; anyone posing as a researcher can raise funds, and may not be held up to the scientific scrutiny and accountability with which the domain is associated. On the other hand, crowdfunded research feeds back to the public directly, where “investors in research” know where their funds are going, what’s going to happen with them and have a vested interest in the output and outcomes of research. Such communication to the public is rarely achieved in the case of government-funded research, which is essentially paid for by the taxpayer. In crowdfunded research, investors can choose areas to fund that are personally relevant, whereas through the traditional route, taxpayers may not even know that their funds were used to support a scientific breakthrough.
In light of such disparities, Jonathan Thon, an assistant professor in the haematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, suggested a middle ground. He proposed that federal funding agencies in the US host a crowdfunding site, which derives the dual benefits of standard quality checks by the scientific community of reviewers as well as multiple agencies willing to fund research that was important to them. Such a platform could allow the researcher to raise money not just for the project at hand, but also legitimately budget institutional overheads typically raised as a proportion of the grant. Expanding the accountability of researchers from their peers and grant-giving agencies to the general public could be achieved through such crowdfunding endeavours.
Lastly, it is incorrect to assume that research that is crowdfunded is the trivial kind, and that which is funded via grant-raising is more policy-oriented and applicable to real-world problems. This is a distinction in science, particularly social science, which must be addressed. A problem, no matter how big or small, when asked and answered through the methods of science, qualifies as scientific research. For instance, a question regarding the effects of nuclear radiation on wildlife in Chernobyl can be answered through the crowdfunded route or the traditional route. In both cases, the goal was the same: to answer a well-defined research problem without compromising the quality of research output. And for this, researchers need funds.
If scientific knowledge is to expand, it cannot happen unless there is a concomitant expansion in those who fund research.